(by Dustin Putman
If 1987's "Wall Street" reveled in the excesses of its time and the corporate lives it portrayed, the unnecessary but stylish sequel "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" views wealth as something to almost dread. If you have it, don't get too comfy; in today's economically depressed times, everything you've got can be taken away in an instant. The film, like the original, is very much of its respective time, and things aren't quite so care-free anymore. Oliver Stone (2008's "W") has directed a slick, socially conscious follow-up, but one that is too soft and too easy by a half. Perhaps Stone has shed a certain cynicism with age; what he hasn't shed is his inability to convey subtlety when he can instead hit the viewer over the head with his point. Article continues below
The year is 2008, and Wall Street trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is already a millionaire at the age of twenty-something. When a financial meltdown occurs and trusted boss and mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) literally jumps in front of a train after hedge fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin) refuses to save his company, Jake finds himself suddenly unemployed. Seeking the guidance of Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), out of prison for eight years and promoting a new book entitled "Is Greed Good?," Jake informs him of his plans to marry his estranged daughter, liberal journalist Winnie (Carey Mulligan), and also of his recent misfortunes. In return for helping him to get closer to Winnie, who still blames him for the overdosing death of her older brother Rudy, Gekko instructs Jake on how to move in on Bretton James to prove both his illegal trading and his responsibility in the death of Zabel.
"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is wider in scope than its predecessor—the aerial shots of Manhattan alone are a great deal more complex and evocative, courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto's (2009's "State of Play") superb lensing—and technically more ambitious. It's a lot of other things, too, including clumsy, obvious and safe. Opening with a pulsating rhythm and pacing, the narrative soon slows down and begins to meander as it contrives a way for Gordon Gekko to figure into the story. Even so, the part isn't all that prominent, the script by Allan Loeb (2008's "21") and Stephen Schiff (1999's "True Crime") turning him from an anti-hero into a semi-shady guy with a heart that keeps getting in the way. Just so audiences don't miss the bubble-bursting analogy within the tale, director Oliver Stone tosses in countless bubble references and even lingers twice on random children blowing them in a park.
Reprising the role that won him an Academy Award twenty-three years ago, Michael Douglas (2009's "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past") isn't given ample chance to run with it. Prison and the added wisdom that comes with time passing has changed Gordon Gekko. The question of how true his motives are lingers, but his ruthlessness is gone. As Jake Moore, Shia LaBeouf (2009's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen") continues to prove what a fine young actor he is, seamlessly shedding his youth roles for more grown-up ones. Where LaBeouf falters is in his emotional connectivity with the viewer; we watch him, but don't really like him much. With Jake, he's a good guy overall, but with an underlying hint of arrogance (is it the actor's or the character's?) that rubs the wrong way.
Carey Mulligan (2010's "Never Let Me Go"), American accent in seamless check, can do no wrong. That's what she does—or doesn't do—as Winnie, baring her character's feelings with an uninhibited vulnerability and honesty. Josh Brolin (2010's "Jonah Hex"), the heavy this time as Bretton James, sneakily slides fleeting hints of shame into an otherwise one-note villain. Susan Sarandon (2009's "The Lovely Bones") is fine as Jake's mother in a weirdly written role that feels separate from everything else, and Charlie Sheen (2003's "Scary Movie 3") cameos as Bud Fox. The most unforgettable performance, however, is a small but crucial one. Frank Langella (2008's "Frost vs. Nixon") is beyond belief as the tormented, ill-fated Louis Zabel, his memory haunting the rest of the film.
Studded with a soundtrack featuring songs by David Byrne and Brian Eno, all of them killer, and technology that hopefully won't date itself as badly as the fashions and box-like computers and cellular phones of "Wall Street," "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is maybe an inch better than its cinematic forbearer. What it lacks is a singular vision. Director Oliver Stone aims for cutthroat, but flinches as the uneven story works itself out and the characters, few of them adequately warming to the viewer-find redemption in a tidy, mainstream-pandering ending. Overlong at 130 minutes, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" determines where it wants to go—it's not difficult to guess—but takes its sweet time getting there. Was it worth the trouble? Is greed good?