The Comeback Kid
Michael Douglas as an older, wiser con man
by Jason Blair
WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS: Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff. Cinematography, Rodrigo Prieto. Music, Craig Armstrong. Starring Micheal Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon. 20th Century Fox, 2010. PG-13. 127 minutes.
While Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps nearly breaks the record for longest gap between a sequel and its original, the timing of the new film feels providential. The current recession was made possible by the complex financial transactions of Wall Street, which leveraged huge tons of money against the housing market, which then crashed, taking the economy with it. In its recklessness, easy virtue and comfort with deep debt, the pre-crisis boom was in many ways the flowering of the era portrayed in Wall Street, in which Gordon Gekko (Micheal Douglas) bullied and cheated investors under the mantra that “greed is good.”
In Money Never Sleeps, set more than two decades after Wall Street, Gekko is unceremoniously released from prison, only to promptly disappear from the scene. Instead, we’re introduced to Jake (Shia LeBeouf), a successful investment banker living with Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be Gekko’s daughter. Jake’s boss and mentor, Louis (Frank Langella), the founder of their firm, mysteriously gives Jake a bonus check, which must be what operates as a life preserver when the dam breaks in our twisted-up financial sector. The next day, the waters rise: Louis, an icon of the securities market, is hauled before a banking panel at the U.S. Treasury, where it’s revealed that his firm has suffered drastic losses in stock. Before you can say Lehman Brothers, the panel decides not to bail out Louis, instead taking their cue from the sinister Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Louis, instead of cutting a deal, takes his own life.
Re-enter Gekko, this time on the lecture circuit, where he’s a leading critic of Wall Street banking practices. Gekko predicted the financial crisis, which catches Jake’s attention: Would the scoured old man help Jake to avenge Louis’ death? Is Winnie the leverage Jake needs to keep Gekko honest?
Unfortunately, it’s of little consequence. Money Never Sleeps is all webs and no spiders — nothing to hold your attention and focus it for a meaningful length of time. While Douglas gives Gekko a weary, wizened aura — the older Gekko is man of craft rather than brute force, as in Wall Street — there’s little doubt about what’s going to happen when Gekko smells money. Think sharks. Think blood.
There’s simply too much happening in Money Never Sleeps to care about the outcome. While director Oliver Stone finds the right balance of energy and restraint — relative to his recent work, at least — he still presses his metaphors too strenuously. Children blowing bubbles in Central Park on the eve of the financial crash is one thing; an Obi-Wan like apparition of Louis appearing over Jake’s shoulder is another. The script, which contains one-liners to a fault, is essentially fish wrap around the 2008 financial crisis; the meltdown is meant to give Money Never Sleeps a purpose, but it convolutes the film and deadens our interest. Brolin shines as the villain Bretton, LeBouef rebounds nicely from recent miscues and Langella is still a resounding actor, but the performer most adrift in Money Never Sleeps is Carey Mulligan — a shock considering her turn in An Education, which drew comparisons to Audrey Hepburn. Mulligan exists only to fret and cry in Money Never Sleeps. She should have seen the screenplay for the toxic asset it is.