Four of Five Stars
Rated R/127 min.
Greed is still good in this belated, wickedly entertaining sequel to Oliver Stone’s influential stockbroker morality drama. Gordon Gekko (played again by Michael Douglas, who won a Best Actor Oscar the first time around) returns to New York after years in prison and goes on a comeback/revenge mission with the help of a money-hungry young broker named Jake Moore (Shia Labeouf). Gekko also longs for redemption, and seeks forgiveness from his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who is also Moore’s fiancée.
After the underrated World Trade Center and the mixed-bag, work-in-progress that was W., Stone comes roaring back with the cinematic equivalent of a page turner. The first film, released in 1987, was ahead of its time; it opened mere months before the stock market went south and provided searing commentary on the then-little known world of high-pressure money dealing and insider trading. This time, for obvious reasons, Stone sets the film in 2008, during the early days of the Great Recession and ensuing bailouts. Some may complain that Stone is on his soapbox again (does he ever get off?), but it’s hard to argue with the appropriateness of his setting.
After a series of over-caffeinated turns in bad movies, LaBeouf dials it down, doesn’t try so hard and aces his first solid leading man performance. Frank Langella is wonderful as Moore’s dearest friend and the film’s moral center, 94-year old veteran actor Eli Wallach steals all of his scenes as a Wall Street staple, Mulligan is outstanding and Josh Brolin embodies suave villainy. But this is Douglas’s show: he’s sly, witty and razor-sharp and appears to genuinely enjoy revisiting his most iconic role.
Filmgoers who take a refresher course and watch the 1987 film first will note the similarities, including the heartfelt father/son dynamic between LeBeouf and Mulligan, which mirrors the relationship between Charlie and Martin Sheen from the original. Yet audiences who haven’t seen “Wall Street” and don’t know stocks and bonds from Barry Bonds will still be entertained. Brian Eno and David Byrne’s songs add snap to many scenes and “This Must Be the Place” by the Talking Heads, a pivotal track from the first film, returns. (Also back is Charlie Sheen, in a jewel of a cameo.)
The original had a more focused screenplay, and a two-man Faust-like bargain to drive the story. This one is more complex and ambitious but Stone doesn’t know how to close the curtain. Where Wall Street had a tough, abrupt conclusion, Money Never Sleeps tries out several endings, finally settling on a very Hollywood finish that is satisfying but not really believable.
The appeal of both films is that, whether you work in New York or Lahaina, everyone can relate to the clash between ambition and ethics, and the way the promise of success can tweak even the strongest moral compass. Do you allow money to change you? It’s a difficult, universal question.