The ride is as bumpy as the stock market is these days in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” A 23-years-on sequel to the still-entertaining original in which Michael Douglas created his signature role of Gordon Gekko, the new film initially takes good and opportunistic advantage of contemporary financial woes to detail the malfeascence of bankers and traders. But the script feels like a pasted-together hodgepodge of elements that co-exist without credibly blending together, topped by a climax that feels particularly hokey in its effort to leave audiences comfortable rather than disturbed by what they’ve just seen. It’s surprising for Oliver Stone to propagate an air of complacency about the financial state of things, but that’s the effect of the outrageously false feel-good ending. There are moments that bare more teeth than “W.” did, but they’re mostly in the first couple of reels.
An amusing prologue shows Gekko collecting, among other things, his giant cellphone upon release from prison in 2001. However, most of “Money,” which takes its subtitle from a line in the 1987 film, is set in 2008, when the financial meltdown is being felt with full force and Gekko busies himself promoting his book, “Is Greed Good?” Slightly chastened but still a hustler who gets good mileage out of catch phrases like “steroid banking,” Gekko remains mostly on the dramatic sidelines in the early-going in favor of Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a hotshot young trader whose mentor, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), is poised to do a Lehman Brothers when the Fed refuses a bail-out of his firm.
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Zabel’s cutthroat nemisis Bretton James (Josh Brolin) thinks he may have found a kindred soul in Jake and quickly takes him on board at rival investment bank Churchill Schwartz. Specializing in the energy field, Jake believes he has some cards up his sleave that will be winners even during the current malaise, but Bretton is a bull who needs to butt heads over every point, making every day a visit to the arena.
Stone charges all the early boardroom showdowns with strong macho challenge, threat and defiance. The high stakes and sense of thinly fictionalized recent history endow these scenes an almost lurid sense of eavesdropping on the inner sanctum, as the big boys go after one another with do-or-die finality. Unfortunately, they remain the best moments in a picture, as screenwriters Allan Loeb (“Things We Lost in the Fire”) and Stephen Schiff (“Lolita”) thereafter try with only sporadic success to integrate other story strands into the central one of Jake’s struggle.
The contrivance linking Jake to Gekko is that the former happens to be living with the latter’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Winnie hasn’t seen her dad in years, as she blames him, rightly or wrongly, for the drug overdose death of her brother. She’s also turned off by the whole Wall Street ethos, making her choice of Jake a bit hard to figure, although there’s no doubt a bit of father-substitute subtext at work there.
Cultivating a secret relationship with Gekko with an eye to managing a reconciliation between father and daughter, Jake also has to deal with his neurotic realtor mother (Susan Sarandon) in a dead-end subplot. But that’s a minor point compared to the fact that, the attempted raproachment aside, Gekko remains outside the primary line of action for most of the way, hauled in to spout sound bite commentary on the financial mess from the stands and fire off the occasional smart retort, such as when he tells off the demeaning Bretton by saying, “I’ll make you a deal. You stop telling lies about me and I’ll stop telling the truth about you.”
Eventually, by the time “Gekko’s back” and his business interests finally move centerstage, his involvement and attitude strike a false note for the sake of cheap suspense, sending the film in a distracting direction far from the more profound financial issues the film starts out by confronting. In the end, the picture has little new or insightful to say about business and investment tomfoolery, much less about the future, beyond what is contained in the characters’ innumerable platitudes.
A lavish charity benefit scene at the Metropolitan Museum allows Charlie Sheen, who played Gekko’s young protege in “Wall Street,” the opportunity to swing through and provide an update on his character, which in the event seems neither here nor there.
Douglas is too far from the locus of action here for Gekko to have anywhere near the same now that he did originally. The character became an icon for its era but now he can’t help but seem like something of a tourist visiting a new planet. La Beouf’s intensity allows him to hold his own with seasoned veterans such as Douglas and Brolin, the latter of whom is scarily venal as the baddest cowboy on the street. Mulligan’s character is not very well written or motivated, but she has one effective emotional scene with Douglas on the steps of the Met, and Eli Wallach (very busy now in his 90s), playing the business’ elder statesman, has a brief show-stopping speech during a key showdown. Langella hams it up but his character lingers even when not around.
It’s hard to believe Stone would stoop to arbitrarily making LaBeouf’s and Brolin’s characters motorcycle racers just for the sake of a silly action sequence in which they compete to see who has the bigger cojones, but there it is. The elaborate effects montages designed to illustrate financial and corporate doings are somewhat annoying, but not nearly as much as the cluttered soundtrack on which the redoubtable David Byrne and Brian Eno have contributed songs that mix unharmoniously with ill-chosen additional material.