The great joke of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps? That the insider trading and corporate raiding that Gordon Gekko was guilty of in the original film was petty thievery compared to grand larceny committed by the latest round of Wall Street thugs.
As the film starts, Gekko (Michael Douglas) is just getting out jail. He’s given his cufflinks (diamond-studded), his money clip (empty), and his cell phone (microwave-oven sized). But that’s about all he has. No one comes to pick him up—certainly not his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), a left-wing blogger who blames her father for the overdose death of her brother.
But since all daughters are doomed to date their fathers (or so they say), Winnie is engaged to marry Jake (Shia LaBeouf), himself a young Wall Street stud (albeit one with principles). Jake was mentored by an aging Wall Street titan (Frank Langella), whose boutique brokerage firm was pushed out of business by the bigger, greedier Churchill Schwarz (think Goldman Sachs), led by soulless fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Jake vows to avenge his mentor by taking a job with James and destroying him from within—and he recruits his would-be father-in-law to help.
If the original Wall Street was all about the seduction of wealth and power, Money Never Sleeps is all about the lengths men will go to stay wealthy and powerful. Stone shows how it was the Wall Street fat cats who brokered their own 700-billion dollar bailout, with a seat at the table of the Federal Reserve.
There’s some real outrage—and grim humor—in these scenes, but it’s the emotional content of Money Never Sleeps that never quite resonates. LaBeouf and Mulligan are just okay as the idealistic young couple—she in particular barely registers—and we don’t care one bit about the fate of their impending nuptials or her relationship with Daddy dearest.
Still, the seasoned vets, from Frank Langella as Jake’s elegant mentor to Eli Wallach as Bretton James’ cracked old boss, add some spice. And Stone jacks up the film with lots of directorial pyrotechnics (splits screens, graphics, file footage, etc.) to add a sense of urgency.
In the end, the film belongs to Michael Douglas, just as the first one did. He’s dynamite as Gekko—still vain, still insatiable, but now ever-so-slightly chastened. And despite ourselves, we root for him. Yes, Stone has managed to create a film where Gordon Gekko and his infamous greed come across as positively quaint.