Let's be honest, Michael Douglas' masterfully smarmy performance aside, Wall Street wasn't all that great of a movie to begin with. A hamfisted fable of greed vs. virtue that had the good fortune to land in theaters a few weeks after 1987's Black Monday, it rode the zeitgeist of public outrage over greedy bankers and stockbrokers while enshrining its suspender-wearing villain, Gordon Gekko, as the symbol of all that director Oliver Stone was criticizing. Despite Stone's black-and-white moralizing, Gekko's white-collar malevolence became a real-world template for two decades of psychopathic Wall Street behavior.
It all looks so quaint now. Gekko is a rank amateur when you compare him to Bernie Madoff or the relentless avarice and political influence of Goldman Sachs. It's amazing what a few million credit-default swaps and subprime mortgages will do to redefine scale. In 23 years, we've gone from billions to trillions in government-sanctioned theft.
The old, iconoclastic Oliver Stone, the provocateur who spit out Salvador, Platoon and Talk Radio, might've had enough fire in his belly to produce a sequel that burned down the original and scorched the Armani-clad criminals our system empowers every day. But those days are long gone. This mellower, more established Oliver Stone is the filmmaker who makes comforting films about 9/11 heroism and fuzzy, warm-hearted satires about George W Bush.
Which isn't to say Stone doesn't shoehorn in a few monologues about Wall Street's more psychotic tendencies. But it doesn't amount to much more than cocktail-party venting. Mostly, the director can't decide whether his film is out to damn or glorify the culture. Greed and deception are doggedly frowned upon, but swank penthouse apartments, zippy Ducati motorcycles, and mahogany-clad conference rooms are savored like fine caviar. At some point the film almost seems to be a parody of its predecessor — a campy, simple-minded, bombastic melodrama that preaches virtue while reveling in excess.
Money Never Sleeps opens with Gordon Gekko released from jail and no one to pick him up. Flash forward seven years (yeah, it's that kind of movie) and we meet Jake (Shia LaBeouf ), a young hotshot trader with dreams of fully funding a green fusion-energy company. The only problem is that his firm is choking on toxic assets and his beloved mentor (Frank Langella) commits suicide after a rival hedge-fund manager (Josh Brolin) guts the company. Jake's also engaged to ... wait for it ... Gekko's estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan).
Meanwhile, Gekko has been peddling his book Is Greed Good? while lambasting 2008's steroidal stock schemes. "We're all fucked," he coos, calling college students the "NINJA generation — No income, no jobs, no assets." Jake, hoping for revenge against Brolin, enlists Gekko's aid. But the master manipulator's assistance comes with a price — he wants Jake to help him mend fences with Winnie. Is it fatherly love that motivates Gekko? Or something more calculating?
Soggy soap operatics and a treatise on the reckless economic meltdown become the conflicting focuses of Stone's shallow but passably entertaining film (co-written with screenwriter and stockbroker Allan Loeb), as he loads the screen with fancy dissolves and screen wipes, cell-phone split-screen theatrics, cheesy CGI graphics, and the superimposed images of Dow Jones readouts rising and plunging over the New York City skyline. Even with all his post-production tricks, the best Stone can do to intertwine his two narrative threads is to suggest that the personal becomes the transactional. Things take a turn toward the eye-rolling when Charlie Sheen shows up for a cameo, a model hanging off each arm. Oh, and lest you miss the sledgehammer subtext of Stone's sequel, there are plenty of shots of bubbles blowing through the sky.
All of this would be OK if LaBeouf weren't such a blank-faced hole at the drama's center. While baby-faced Sheen wasn't any less dull, the young star offers little for us to care about. Part of it's the writing (he's never seduced by the dark side the way Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox was), and part of it is the inherent blandness of LaBeouf's performance. Disappointingly, Mulligan joins him in his mediocrity, making clear how thankless her role really is.
The upside of Stone's return to Wall Street is that Douglas is still at the top of his game, slyly playing the cat who views all others as potential mice. Langella is similarly terrific in his role as a defeated financial lion, and there is a profound joy in watching venerable Eli Wallach chew the scenery with his acidic scowls and weird bird noises.
The ultimate shame of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is that is could have been so much more. Gekko's ability to seduce and con should've taken things to brutal and urgent heights, becoming a vicious metaphor for the morally, ethically and intellectually bankrupt system Wall Street has become. Worse, Gekko goes all gooey in the end, succumbing to a sonogram of his grandson-to-be. Geez, Oliver, didn't you learn anything from Return of The Jedi? No one wants to see Darth Vader get all teary-eyed.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.