Capitalism and a Love Story

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps ★★★
Dir: Oliver Stone; Writ: Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Michael Douglas, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, and Frank Langella.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps reintroduces the all-American slimeball Gordon Gekko in a fun, but dangerous scene. The film begins with Gekko’s release from prison. Stone frames the camera on a prison guard as he catalogues Gekko’s list of personal effects and hands them over to the free man. There’s a fancy watch, a gold money clip (empty, of course), and a mobile phone – from the 1990’s. When Gordon (Michael Douglas) grabs the oversized and out-dated device, it’s a playful way of informing new viewers how the first Wall Street ended. However, the antiquated phone also draws attention to the time span between the release of each film. As fun a character as Gordon Gekko may be, was it really necessary to resurrect him twenty-three years later? Before Money Never Sleeps, the answer was an obvious “yes,” but after seeing the film, I’m not so sure.

Following the opening scene, Gekko disappears while the new characters are introduced in the first act. Taking the lead is Shia LaBeouf as Jake Moore, an enthusiastic up-and-coming Wall St. broker with a hunger for making money. Jake works for Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), an old-school stockbroker who gets screwed by his rival firm, led by the evil suit Bretton James, played by Josh Brolin. Zabel’s poor turn of fortune hits him hard, and Jake finds himself in both a fiscal and an emotional predicament. Aiding both matters, however, is his relationship with Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Winnie is a hot ticket because not only does she agree to marry Jake, but her last name is Gekko.

The first part of Money Never Sleeps is rather frustrating. Expecting a return from Gordon Gekko, the audience is teased with the opening scene, but then forced to engage with new characters and stories that had nothing to do with the first Wall Street. Langella gives a compelling turn in his brief role as Jake’s mentor and Brolin is a worthy villain, but LaBeouf leaves much to be desired. As Money Never Sleeps progresses towards Jake meeting his father-in-law to be, it makes a slow bid for its necessity.

Things pick up, though, when Gekko makes a comeback. Harkening back to his “Greed is good” speech from the original film, Douglas returns and Gekko gives a lecture on financial planning. Gordon now offers a different opinion, saying that America’s rampant greed and consumerism will be its downfall. In a further act to redeem his credibility, Gekko accurately predicts the 2008 recession. By situating the sequel within the current economic troubles, Stone and his writers give credence to Gordon Gekko’s cinematic return. Further legitimating the film is Douglas’s repeated greatness as the corporate snake: his work as Gekko is just as good here as his Oscar-winning performance in the first film.
Through the combination of Douglas’s strong screen presence and the engagement with the recession, Money Never Sleeps offers a complex deconstruction of American Capitalism. As Gordon Gekko tries to re-enter his daughter’s life, he appeals to Jake that while in prison, he learned that there are things more important than money. In addition to Gordon’s apparent change of heart, Stone frequently offers a visual critique of American frivolity. In one sequence at a charity benefit, Stone presents a montage of female attendees draped in an excess of opulent gold and jewels. Likewise, Jake’s mother (a terrific Susan Sarandon) pops up more than once to beg her son for a bailout from the debts caused by her financial irresponsibility. Stone is either making a good point about America’s recklessness or he just has it in for women with good taste.
With the strength of Gekko-recession storyline, it’s unfortunate that the film favours the love story between Jake and Winnie. Mulligan is fine as Gekko’s conflicted daughter, but LaBeouf is consistently outmatched by the strength of the supporting cast. Particularly in his scenes with Douglas, LaBeouf can’t hold his own. Why he was chosen for the part is unfathomable, aside from his physical resemblance to a young Charlie Sheen (who makes a cameo appearance in this Wall Street, too). As Jake lags about and double-crosses his fiancée, it’s hard to become involved with his character, especially since LaBeouf is so dull to watch.

The love story also happens to be the undoing of Gordon Gekko, which is the downfall of Money Never Sleeps. Several of the characters have an abrupt change of heart at the end of the film, but when the iconic villain begins to flip-flop, it begs the question whether the sequel was actually worth it. In fact, Stone and company pile so much cheese onto the finale that one would think they were making a pizza and not a film.

Still, it’s a joy to watch Michael Douglas at the top of his game. The actor inhabits his character so well that Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is still worthwhile, despite its numerous downfalls. Twenty-three years later, greed isn’t necessarily “good,” but rather, “good enough.”