Since the release of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, our financial sector has become so amoral it’s hard to look at Gordon Gekko and see a monster. Derivatives make it possible for investors to trade on toxic assets, and after outcry from politicians and ordinary Americans, executives still enjoy hefty bonuses. The excessive wealth is a testament to the industry-wide embrace of Gekko’s “greed is good” mantra. Ironically, the current state of American capitalism is part of the reason Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps lacks the edge of the original. A corrupt system is less eye-catching than a corrupt man, plus the sequel’s human story pulls its punches when it should be devastating. While it’s great seeing Michael Douglas in fine form, Stone’s sequel feels like a pleasantly diverting afterthought.
Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a financial wunderkind who is living with Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), daughter of the infamous investor. It’s been years since Gordon Gekko left jail, and while he remains estranged from Winnie, his book and subsequent tour ensure he’s a familiar face. Jake’s boss commits suicide after fellow CEO Bretton James (Josh Brolin) refuses to help the company, so Jake understandably wants revenge. This goal is made easier when Bretton offers Jake a position in his company. Soon Jake befriends Gordon and, in exchange for financial advice, helps him reconcile with Winnie. The future is looking bright until (shocker) the Wall Street Fat Cats get nasty. With his personal and professional life in turmoil, Jake takes extreme measures to make things right.
Oliver Stone’s early work is known for its brainy intensity, and if this effort is any indication, Stone has gotten softer with age. Using the financial bailout as an important plot point, even the subsequent secret negotiations feel perfunctory when they should feel tense. The weakness lies with the script – characters clumsily foreshadow important plot points, and awkward recurring lines fall flat. Perhaps Stone should have wrote the screenplay instead of outsourcing the job to Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, two guys who never put out anything as punchy as Scarface. As with the original Wall Street, montage conveys how financial misinformation spreads, but nowadays it happens so quickly that images of financial tickers seem old-fashioned. Still, there are glimmers of intensity when characters are at their most angry. Douglas recalls his Academy-winning best when he menacingly utters one-liners, and Shia LaBeouf drops one of the more satisfying f-bombs in recent memory. But for all its strong moments (and there are several), it is nonetheless difficult shake the nagging idea this sequel is disappointingly unnecessary.
With this sequel, Stone and his writers contrast the past and present, but lack the passion/insight to make substantive parallels (Charles Ferguson’s upcoming documentary Inside Job does much better job of this). Even a much-discussed cameo is somewhat disappointing – the writing and acting during the scene is too self-aware, and stronger writers would find more effective use of such a familiar character. Despite the injection of fresh blood, there is little in the sequel for newcomers to appreciate. A niche audience does exist for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, so proceed only if you’re a diehard fan of Gordon and the gang.