Like most Western economies, Oliver Stone’s sequel to “Wall Street” goes through cycles of boom and bust. In a world where bad debt can be sliced, diced and swapped, and a transaction is either in the money, at the money or out of it, the only sure winner is greed. In “Money Never Sleeps,” greed has moved up a notch, according to convicted insider trader and fraudster Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Twenty-three years ago, he declared that “greed is good,” but now he says “it seems to be legal because everyone is drinking the same Kool Aid.”
Freed after eight years in prison, Gekko gets back to the business of survival and muddles through the ruins of his once-opulent life while drooling after a staggering amount of dirty money he had laundered safely in Switzerland. However, his personal redemption is in the hands of his only daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), an embittered woman who has not spoken to him in ages.
He finds a perfect bridge in her fiancé, the brilliant investment bank analyst Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). The two men are a good fit because their thirst for vengeance runs through parallel veins, and they share an instinct for stealth and cunning. Jake wants to mow down the new Gekko on the block, the sleek Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who had driven his benefactor and mentor to suicide. Gekko, whose downfall James helped orchestrate, is more than willing to help.
Much like Gekko, director Oliver Stone returns to the scene of his original hit to find it a somewhat different place. The clunky cell-phone of 1987 has become a featherweight multimedia gizmo, clean energy futures are blue-chip hot and new superpower economies are moving up in the world. Though personal matters are more pressing now than the gyrations of the marketplace, they are necessarily intertwined and Stone finds himself juggling, not without success, the elements of his story – revenge, family reconciliation and the “moral hazards” of the Street.
As Gekko tells an old lady during a signing of his book “Is Greed Good?,” moral hazard is when somebody dupes somebody and gets away with it, loot and all. The original “Wall Street” rode bravely on the back of the theme of moral hazard and sparkled. This sequel runs circles around it and barely shimmers.
Next to the federal government and the family, Wall Street is the most important of U.S. institutions. Amid the financial scandals, market meltdowns and depression of recent years, Americans on Main Street are asking questions about why and how they happened. But it may be too much to ask of a movie to provide the answers. It’s a safe bet that Stone was not intimidated by the challenge, content to simply broach the questions.
Jake’s sweet revenge on his new patron and mentor James nearly doesn’t happen, but when it does, it’s not because of a well-contrived trap or to Gekko’s machinations. Both are rendered superfluous by grass-roots action and the sheriff of last resort — by the exposes of Jack and the liberal Internet blog site run by Winnie and the intervention of federal authorities. It’s perhaps a less exciting course but one that is true-to-life and avoids piling up more money-speak that this movie already has in heaps.
What’s left is the tale of a broken family and Stone explores this angle spiritedly, mixing high drama with mush. The result leaves much to be desired; the conclusion is unearned and the decisions made by the characters are arbitrary and unconvincing.
This film is a sumptuous banquet for the cast, even if at times the guests seem to be talking to themselves rather than to each other. Frank Langella as Jake’s father figure Lou Zabel fires up the movie to a dazzling start. He’s so wrapped up in his role that one can imagine him playing Gekko with the same verve and ruthless efficiency of Michael Douglas. There is nothing more to say about Douglas’s performance except that he adds slimy charisma and more venom to his reptile, plus a skin layer of vulnerability that he can slough off and put on as needed.
Despite a face that’s more teen computer whiz than Wall Street wheeler-dealer, a committed LaBeouf acts more maturely than Jake’s supposed age, fine-tuning his emotions and bonding most closely to every one in the drama, which includes Susan Sarandon as the mom in another astute acting job. Mulligan’s Carrie is much more technique than Method but it’s still early in her career and she has the choice of becoming a Helen Hayes, a Stockard Channing or a Meryl Streep someday. Square-jawed Brolin as James is a competent but rather self-effacing robber baron. He brings with him the cache of his movie role as former President George “Dubya” Bush.
One can listen for hours to this movie’s lines: the razor-sharp rebuke; the witty riposte; the allusions to evolution and pop culture; the droll maxims and aphorisms spiced with a New York twang; plus Mae West’s celebrated quote about two evils. When they fit the character, they’re good. And when they don’t, they’re good.
Images loaded with symbolism are part of Stone’s flashy mannerisms. Here he employs fluorescent 3D charts of stock quotations; tulips, as in the mother of all investment bubbles, the tulip mania of 1637; and the inevitable soap bubbles. (Cotton candy would have been subtler.) New York City’s skyline looks particularly stately in transition shots, as if to proclaim the obvious, its prime position in the world. These symbols reach an eye-popping level in a charity dinner scene shot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the camera parades the women’s Cartier baubles, Bvlgari earrings and Harry Winston beads (just wild guesses here), stunning trophies from Tiffany’s or some other haute jewelers.
But nothing beats Stone’s accidental metaphor for Wall Street. Ninety-five-year-old Eli Wallach plays a shriveled banker whose birdcall during board meetings is the modern-day equivalent of a Roman emperor’s thumb-down for gladiators. With his wizened face, snake eyes and the smile of the Grim Reaper, he fits the bill for the prophet of doom in a financial world that ignores the lessons of history to slump time and again into the arms of greed.