When Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" came out in 1987, it was intended as a cautionary tale for the greed-is-good crowd. Or was it? Despite its heavy-duty moralizing about the wages of sin, the film was really about how greed is sexy. A new generation of traders and brokers and moneymen made "Wall Street" their bible.
"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" brings us up to speed on Michael Douglas's Gordon Gekko, the former Mr. Insider who was put away for eight years in federal prison for corporate malfeasance and now, in 2008, semi-forgotten, is – what else? – hawking a book called "Is Greed Good?" about his transgressions. Casting himself as seer, he spits out doom-laden scenarios for the financial meltdown that – ta-da! – arrives on schedule.
Framed once again as a cautionary tale – or, more accurately perhaps, as an I-told-you-so tale – "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," like its predecessor, is far more enthralled than repelled by greed. The despicable dealings of corporate sharks have all the juices in this film. The gleam of Manhattan's moneyscapes – the lavish fundraising banquets, the mansions, the clothes – have an Arabian Nights allure.
Compare this with the wimpy goody-goodness of Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who, despite the fact that she lives with a hotshot broker, Shia LaBeouf's Jake, despises the money culture so much that she heads up a nonprofit "lefty" blog site and cares deeply about the environment. If there is a way to make virtue more commanding than vice, Stone, and his screenwriters Alan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, have not found it. (That's OK – neither could Charles Dickens.)
"Money Never Sleeps" seems both up to the minute and behind the times. Real world events have upstaged it. The economic fallout from Gekko-style malfeasance isn't merely grist for melodrama, it's a scary constant in our lives. Even Gekko, one of the great antiheroes of modern movies, has been supplanted by Bernie Madoff and all the rest. Reality, thankfully, has a greater pull than fiction.
In some ways, because it is a fiction, "Money Never Sleeps" is a comfort. Instead of recoiling from real-life skulduggery, we get a chance to wax sentimental about a golden oldie like Gekko. He may want to make peace with his daughter but she knows him for what he is. "He'll hurt us," she says to Jake, while we in the audience wait eagerly for the hurts to arrive on cue.
Gekko knows his daughter better than she knows herself. When he asks Jake why she is engaged to a high-powered broker if she hates her father so much, he flashes a wicked smile. (If the film had pursued the Freudian implications of this question, Winnie's role might have perked up.)
Douglas is once again marvelous as Gekko. His hawklike profile has never seemed more severe, but there's a weariness, too. You can believe this man spent eight years in prison. Although the filmmakers push for his redemption in a singularly phony denouement, Gekko's real redemption comes a bit earlier, when the malfeaser in him once again rises to the occasion. Compared with Gekko, the film's other designated bad guy, billionaire vulture Bretton James (sleekly played by Josh Brolin) is a waxwork.
If one were to take this entertainingly uneven film altogether seriously, it might be worth pointing out that the good old days of Wall Street shenanigans were never all that good – or that old, either. Stone imparts a rosy glow to the old guard in "Money Never Sleeps" – particularly Jake's mentor, played by Frank Langella, and another honcho, played by Eli Wallach, who is so ancient he lived through the Great Depression. Stone has Gekko say things like, "While I was away greed got greedier," or "It's not about the money, it's about the game."
Meanwhile Gekko is using the money to ambush everything in sight, including his own child. Some game. "Money Never Sleeps" doesn't get inside the sociopathology of the money culture. In a sense, it is a product, an expression, of that culture. Maybe that's why it's so disagreeably agreeable. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and thematic elements.)