Back when Gordon Gekko was a master of the universe in Wall Street, the sleek tiger in a power necktie knew what he wanted (everything) and what he would do to get it (anything). ”Greed…is good,” he famously declared, the man’s material lust embodied with Oscar-winning polish by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s 1987 portrait of a go-go, gone-gone era. Gekko stalked and pounced in a stratosphere measured by leveraged buyouts and timed by gold Rolex watches. His fate? At the end of Wall Street, he turned in his fancy timepiece for a stint in the slammer.
Now, in Stone’s made-for-the-moment sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Gekko’s out of prison — and it’s not at all clear what he wants. In the beginning, he’s released from the federal pen in (pre-9/11) 2001 with no one to meet him at the prison gate. Then, with a leap, it’s 2008, on the eve of what we know with rueful hindsight is an American financial crisis that reverberates still. The new blood on the Street is represented by Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a nimble trader at a big Bear Stearns-like firm who swears filial allegiance to his old mentor (Frank Langella), capitalist fidelity to the possibilities of alternative energy, and romantic loyalty to his sweetheart, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Winnie is a crusading Internet journalist who hates Wall Street, maybe because her father is Gordon Gekko.
A lot of Money Never Sleeps — too much — is about Gekko père’s desire to reconnect with his very angry daughter and about Jake’s mostly noble but sometimes conveniently self-serving attempts to broker a reconciliation. And some of the movie is about Jake’s mostly noble but sometimes conveniently self-serving attempts to avenge what befalls his old mentor as the ground begins to shake with the first tremors of a financial earthquake. In this, LaBeouf’s crisp approach serves him well. He’s a grown-up in a grown-up part. Mulligan brings nuance to the role of a young woman who has paid a steep price for being a child of wealth. Josh Brolin has fun playing an outright conscienceless, avaricious villain, just so we can boo him. He’s an easy effigy figure, made for burning.
But Gordon Gekko? He’s unreadable to the end — victim (an odd word to apply to GG) of the filmmaker’s conflicting desires. Temperamentally, Oliver Stone loves to throw himself into the macho bloodiness of a cinematic fray. That’s his strength. But here he also wants to murmur a trite and pious lullaby about how children-are-our-real-wealth, la la la. It’s clear Stone loves the power and poshness of the boom-boom celebrities who swan through his picture, including Jim Cramer and Maria Bartiromo, as well as Charlie Sheen, reprising his role as Gekko’s protégé-turned-nemesis Bud Fox. But the director seems uncharacteristically preachy, in a square, Our Dumb Nation way, as if wringing his hands with fatherly worry that some heedless pup or other will go home and practice Gekkovian speeches in front of a mirror. Hence the patronizing lesson: Greed is not good. C+