“Is greed good?” muses Michael Douglas in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” and one can’t help but wonder in return: Has Gordon Gekko gone soft? The answer is, sort of — a development that takes some of the bite out of Oliver Stone’s shrewdly opportunistic, glibly entertaining sequel, which offers another surface-skimming peek inside the power corridors of global finance, this time during the 2008 economic crisis. Still, the chance to see Douglas reprise his seminal role is sure to stimulate interest among the original’s many fans, giving Fox’s Sept. 24 release a shot at bullish returns in most markets.
Intended as a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of unchecked ambition and greed, Stone’s 1987 original instead had the effect of turning Douglas’ hugely charismatic (and Oscar-winning) villain into a household name and boardroom icon — an inspiration to the very power players and Wall Street wannabes for whom he set such a terrible example. But the intervening years, particularly the past decade, have given us no shortage of real-life wake-up calls — from Enron and Bernie Madoff to the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression — and Stone, to his credit, takes a less finger-wagging approach this time around, trusting audiences to feel sufficiently chastened going in.
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Stone also seems well aware that the last thing most moviegoers want is a depressing dramatization or comprehensive overview of what has become a grim everyday reality. Thus, one tycoon’s suicide by subway train notwithstanding, the overall mood is brisk, light, even playful. Scribes Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have taken care to distill complex economic concepts into terms a non-finance major can keep up with (illustrated by a few too many zippy graphics, split-screen montages and shots of the Gotham skyline), all the while supplying Gekko with a steady stream of barbed aphorisms to chew on and spit out for his and the viewer’s delectation.
The opening scene finds Gekko being released from federal prison, having served eight years for corporate malfeasance. Unshaven and virtually penniless, the dispirited icon disappears for the first half-hour as the film leaps forward seven years to introduce whip-smart Manhattan go-getter Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Unlike Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, Jake has already made his first million as a trader for Keller Zabel Investments, run by his gruffly affectionate mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). But Jake, the film takes pains to note, is a good liberal at heart; his real passion is alternative energy, and he has a steady relationship with left-leaning blogger Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who conveniently happens to be Gekko’s daughter.
Casually dropping terms such as “speculation” and “leveraged debt,” along with frequent references to the plummeting housing market, the film establishes the initial signs of unrest as Keller Zabel, whose stock price has plunged amid rumors of massive debt, is swiftly taken over by Zabel’s bitter rival, billionaire raider Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Devastated and yearning for payback, Jake gets his shot when Bretton, seeing the young man’s talent potential, offers him a job at his firm, whose partners include Julie Steinhardt (Eli Wallach), a fount of wisdom old enough to have lived through the Depression.
To leverage his position, Jake does some personal insider trading of his own with Gekko, who gives Jake crafty advice in return for access to Winnie, who has never forgiven her father’s crimes. It’s a setup for a keen investigation of what happens when the professional gets in bed with the personal — a new definition of “moral hazard” — and Jake finds himself in over his head as he exploits both the market and the media in the interests of petty revenge.
LaBeouf (who, between this and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” seems to be the new poster boy for franchise renewals) looks even more boyish than Sheen did, and while he talks a good line, he’s less assured when called upon to shed earnest tears, which is often. Mulligan does better, bringing solid reserves of emotion to a role that at times threatens to tip over into sanctimony, and her eventual heart-to-heart with Douglas, breaking years of angry silence, is surprisingly wrenching stuff.
Like the first film, “Money Never Sleeps” deploys Douglas sparingly, which has the desired effect — when he’s not onscreen, you wish he were — but also keeps the actor from giving the sort of fully rounded characterization he did in the recent indie “Solitary Man,” in which he also played a smooth talker in search of redemption. Older, grayer and perhaps a touch less snakelike, Douglas is still insinuatingly good, and his performance lays the groundwork for the film’s one spectacularly cynical twist — one that proves too much for the film’s crowd-pleasing instincts to bear. Suffice it to say that, in dramatic terms, Stone winds up bailing out his characters.
Still, after his attempts to branch out slightly with “World Trade Center” and “W.,” “Money Never Sleeps” finds Stone at ease in a way he hasn’t been in years, his camera moving assuredly from high-powered charity banquets to the Federal Reserve Board’s inner chambers to de rigueur shots of the trading-room floor. Tech package is polished all around, although the editing — mixing in fades, dissolves, iris shots and other retro transitions — seems a bit over-caffeinated. In a nod to the 1987 film, songs by David Byrne and Brian Eno fill out the soundtrack.