Pros: strong performances from an ensemble cast, sharp script, beautiful cinematography, and excellent score
Cons: a lack of focus in the third act topped off with a weak ending
Director Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is both a sequel to its 1987 predecessor, and a standalone film. Those who haven't seen the original will still be able to appreciate this film, although fans of the first film may arguably appreciate it more. The story begins in 2001, with the infamous Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) being released from prison after serving eight years for insider trading and securities fraud. Gekko leaves jail with nothing more than some personal trinkets, a check for $1,800 and a train ticket to New York. The slick, suave manipulator is now a broken old man, with no one waiting for him on the outside.
Jump to 2008, where the audience is introduced to Jacob Moore (Shia Laboeuf), a young trader for investment firm Keller Zabel. Jacob is smart, hardworking, and ambitious, having already made his first million in his mid-20's. He's "in it for the money like everyone else," but he also has a passion for alternative energy, investing heavily in a small start-up in California specializing in fusion. Jacob also happens to be engaged to Winnie Gekko (Carrie Mulligan), daughter of Gordon. Winnie works as a developer and blogger for a left-wing political website, and has been estranged from her father for some time, blaming him for the death of her brother Rudy, who suffered a drug overdose while Gordon was incarcerated. Jacob has a neutral position on the issue until his boss and mentor, Lou Zabel (Frank Langella), commits suicide after being forced to sell off his firm for 3 dollars a share due to its exposure to sub-prime loans. Jacob suspects the firm's downfall was orchestrated by hedge fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin) of rival firm Churchill Schwartz in an attempt to gain control of the company and its assets.
Jacob's interest in Gekko begins when he attends (unbeknownst to Winnie) a publicity event for Gekko’s new book, "Is greed good?", a warning to the financial industry that its excesses will ultimately be its undoing. Gekko can sense Jacob’s anger over the death of Zabel, but expresses his reluctance to help. "I learned in prison that money isn't the most important asset, time is, and yours is about up." But Gekko is slowly cajoled by Jacob to help him seek revenge on James, in exchange for Jacob helping him to reconcile with his daughter. However, Jacob gets more than he bargained for as family secrets are revealed, old rivalries are reignited, and his association with Gordon jeopardizes his relationship with Winnie.
At its core, Money Never Sleeps is a morality tale, much like its predecessor, with a strong message about family loyalty and knowing what’s important in life. However, it lacks the anger with which Stone imbued the first film. Stone paints a much more sympathetic portrait of Wall Street than the first film, which is ironic considering the recklessness that led to the current financial crisis trumps any of the insider trading scandals of the 80s. Gekko even quips, "Compared to what these guys are doing, I was a small-time crook." Maybe Stone is just getting older, and has developed a stronger sense of empathy.
Michael Douglas slips right back in to the role that made him a star, playing Gekko with the same panache as he did in 1987, but with an added depth and sincerity. The Gekko of Money Never Sleeps is repentant, has a genuine sense of regret, and wants more than anything to repair his relationship with his daughter. Make no mistake though, he’s still got an ace up his sleeve and an axe to grind; he's still about the game. Shia Laboeuf actually turns in a halfway decent performance as Jacob, playing him not as some bright-eyed idealist, but as an ambitious young man with a sense of purpose and determination who believes in what he is doing. Carrie Mulligan, Josh Brolin, and Frank Langella are equally good in their respective roles. Brolin's Bretton James is the new breed of Gekkos, the robber-barrons who not only get away with perpetuating financial terrorism, but receive government subsidies to do so.
The film's first two acts are its strongest, covering a good amount of material in a short amount time without leaving the audience scratching their heads. The financial meltdown of 2008 is covered in detail, with Federal Reserve meetings, bailouts, and market panics. Those unfamiliar with the financial world shouldn’t worry too much. In spite of all the jargon, the main thought is always there and even those who don't soak it all in can still enjoy it. Where the film spins out of control is in the third act, when Stone seems to lose the tight focus of the first two acts. Plot points established earlier in the film don't seem to click the way they should, and the story doesn’t deliver on some of its promises. Jacob and Gekko's storylines seem to diverge in the third act, even though the first two acts lead the audience to believe the exact opposite. Nonetheless, Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff’s screenplay has enough razor sharp dialogue and plot twists to keep it entertaining, such as when Gekko tells James, "I'll make you a deal. You stop telling lies about me, and I’ll stop telling the truth about you." In addition, the film boasts an impressive production value, with the standout being Rodrigo Prieto’s gorgeous cinematography. New York hasn’t looked this good since, well, the first Wall Street. The production design by Kristi Zea is equally impressive, And the soundtrack by David Byrne and Brian Eno provides a strong emotional undercurrent without feeling too 80s retro.
Money Never Sleeps may be Oliver Stone's warmest film. The problem is, this becomes as much of a fault as it is strength. In its attempts to be sympathetic to its characters, the film eschews the good story it establishes for tear-jerking confrontations and sappy sentimentality. It's nice to see Oliver Stone has lightened up a bit, but this wasn't the right film to prove that point.