Silver Screen: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps ****
Oliver Stone's sequel to his spectacular 1987 morality play Wall Street is only slightly less improbable than a followup to JFK. At first glance it looks like the kind of cynical cash-in that only the movie's compelling monster Gordon Gekko could love, a move to seize on the increased interest in the financial sector made for reasons less artistic than capitalistic. But Stone, working with screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, found a way to revisit the material and make it not only relevant but dramatically satisfying.
In the first Wall Street, naï ve trader-in-training Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is taken in by a savvy creature more dangerous than any bull or bear: the Gekko. Michael Douglas's G. Gekko was a cold-hearted raider who was more interested in making money than earning it, unlike Fox's earnest, blue-collar father (Martin Sheen). So insidiously charming was Gekko, though, that even the most knowing audience member couldn't help but be drawn in by his charisma; he's the Hannibal Lecter of the office set. Gekko is the embodiment of the ugly side of the spirit of American enterprise, a privileged, buttoned-down counterpart to Tony Montana in Stone's Scarface.
Wall Street ended with young Fox choosing dad and the workers over his boss and big bucks, scandalizing Gekko, and seemingly imperiling his own future. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opens in 2001, as Gekko is released from prison after an eight-year term. Standing alone outside the gates, wearied by his ordeal, he's left with nothing but a handful of now-superfluous luxury items, including a cell phone the size of a brick. (Because it's been a long time! Get it?)
Flash forward seven years. Gekko's estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) is running a not-for-profit lefty website, but her boyfriend is a finance man. Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is an investment banker working at a Bear Stearns avatar run by his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). When Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the duplicitous leader of a rival firm, starts rumors and manipulates markets to take down Zabel's firm, it drives the old man to ruin, inspiring a lust for revenge in Jake.
The only man Jake can think of who can help him take James down is the master manipulator himself, his father-in-law to be. Gekko has reinvented himself, post-incarceration, as a reformed outlaw turned whistleblower. His new book Is Greed Good? spins his classic quote into a warning about excess-- excesses that have gotten a lot more, well, excessive since the days of Reagan and Ray-Bans.
Gekko has an axe to grind with James as well. Wall Street's new golden boy helped sell him up the river years ago, so he's doubly invested in assisting the ambitious Moore. He makes a deal with his future son-in-law, agreeing to mentor and advise him in his quest against James if the boy will help reunite daddy and daughter Gekko. But, as Winnie warns, in any deal with Gordon Gekko, the master turns up on the sweet side of the balance sheet.
Much of the fun in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps derives from the pleasure of watching the master villain's powers turned toward (relative) good. It's not unlike Terminator II, in which Schwarzenegger's killing machine is turned against Skynet. Douglas more than makes good on the promise of wicked delights, smirking and strategizing his way past odious new enemies.
That's the real relevance of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the raison de ciné : The financial system has become so atavistic in the last quarter century that the villains of old look relatively moral compared to the new crop of raiders. Gekko wanted to bilk Blue Star Airlines, even if it meant costing American workers their jobs; the new group has amplified that mentality, risking not just individual jobs but the entire system.
That system has become infinitely-- and intentionally-- more complicated, which is a problem for Stone and the narrative. The fiscal shenanigans in the original film weren't all that complex, and it was easy enough to fashion a story for the average filmgoer out of Gekko's machinations. But the intricacies of the current calamity make for a film that's as occasionally confounding as the crimes it seeks to illuminate. The action, as it were, in the second Wall Street is difficult to follow even for those who have been keeping one eye on the financial pages. It's a bitter truth that the white-collar thieves who gamed the system were so successful in their obfuscation that even in retrospect it's incredibly difficult to make sense of the caper. Still, it's interesting, relevant stuff.
Stone's still never met a visual metaphor he can't beat into the ground (audiences will be very tired of looking at bubbles by the end of the film), and his heavy hand is still apparent, from his hero's name (Moore?) to supporting player Susan Sarandon's entire character, which exists only as a thematic signpost. But Stone's likeable audacity is also present, if perhaps thankfully muted, as when the movie's skylines are transformed into volatile stock charts and bustling streets become glowing news tickers. Add to that another thrilling performance from Douglas, plus a nice turn from the underutilized but radiant Mulligan, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a surprising winner-- even despite the unearned, implausibly rosy ending.