Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps doesn't have the clean, fable-like arc of its predecessor. The buccaneer charisma of Michael Douglas' signature role as Gordon Gekko obscured the moral soul of Wall Street. But everything now is so much murkier.
Money Never Sleeps employs whiz-kid proprietary trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a specialist in alternative energy. His story begins in precrash 2008 as he sights a gathering storm in the gray, lost expression of Lew Zabel (Frank Langella), managing partner and his father figure. With rumors of toxic subprime debt, Lew goes before the Federal Reserve Board, a three-ton conference table of the old, the white, and the ugly, including Eli Wallach as a relic who predates the income tax. Hope of clemency is cut off when hedge-fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin) leans into the frame and drops words like a guillotine: "Your valuations are no longer believable."
Jake goes looking for revenge and a new mentor, and one possibility is the estranged father of the girl he's going to marry, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan). Coming out of Sing Sing in the film's prologue, Douglas' aquiline profile could belong to a hungover Founding Father. Gekko becomes a prophet in the wilderness of financial doomsday, hawking his book Is Greed Good? on the lecture circuit. "You're the NINJA generation—no income, no job, no assets," he tells a crowd of 20-somethings, including Jake, who starts meeting with Gekko behind Winnie's back, pumping the guru for advice in exchange for facilitating a family reunion. Jake, meanwhile, takes a job with James, the man who crushed Jake's father-figure boss.
LaBeouf's inexplicable celebrity suggests he has compromising photos of God. He is tasked here with reflecting the film's subtler dilemmas, such as whether Zabel's honest incompetence is nobler than James' wicked efficiency. But projecting ambition through a pert frown and intent gum-chewing, he's flat and dull where he needs to gleam from both sides of a divided loyalty. There's no sense of moral suspense in the partnership of Jake and James. Tellingly, LaBeouf is most convincing opposite Susan Sarandon, playing his McMansion-flipping mother.
"It's very hard to do a financial movie, to make stocks and bonds sexy and interesting," Stone told Fortune on Wall Street's 20th anniversary, before a bull market for white-collar wickedness greenlit a follow-up. He does his utmost: In addition to his beloved stop-motion scudding clouds, we have eccentric cell-phone split-screens and Bloomberg terminal readouts superimposed over images. The Dow Jones arches and plunges along downtown's skyline; a spiraling crane shot rises alongside Philip Johnson's Lipstick Building. And while the sequel subtitle suggests 24-hour enmeshed world markets, new internationalism is limited to a second-unit trip to London and a visit from some Chinese investors that prompts a hoary cliché.
The "stocks and bonds" story moves along nicely, in fact, all headlines and hambone, pissing contests, and Brolin demolishing his office with an old master canvas. It's Jake's the personal-is-professional merger with the Gekko family that shows a tendency to melodrama unredeemed by wit. Working in the good-guy field of "saltwater fusion," he's no idealist. "The only green is money, honey," he tells the fiancée, whose pretty Swiss bank account he'll sweet-talk his way into while clandestinely meeting with Gekko, who's working angles all his own.
"We're all mixed bags" is the conclusion of unwieldy mixed-bag Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. If barely prosecuted, the real players in our last crash face a long pop-culture pillorying. That is not, however, how Stone works. Floating off on a faux-naive happy ending this time, one takes the lesson that there are no villains — or that villains are all there are.