Two decades after Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) helped define the era of greed in Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning Wall Street, the legendary character returns to his stomping grounds to find a game that has vastly increased in scope and collateral damage. With Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Stone and writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have redefined the boundaries of Gekko's classic line "Greed is good." The idea is that even Gekko might be stunned at some of the obscene behavior that led to the bubble bursting in 2008 and this is not a standard sequel as much as an update of the terms of financial morality in the new era. And it works. With strong performances, an intelligent script, and stylish direction by Stone, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps represents the once-consistent auteur's best work since Nixon (with the possible exception of Any Given Sunday). It's not a perfect film and features a final scene that is so ridiculously wrong that it could leave viewers angry and dismissive of the entire project but there's much more to like here than there is to hate and, for the majority of its running time, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is straight-up entertaining.
He still looks a bit too young to be taken seriously on Wall Street itself, but Shia LaBeouf does the best work of his remarkably-successful career as Jake Moore, an ambitious-but-loyal trader who happens to be dating the daughter (Carey Mulligan) of the legendary Gekko. The film opens with Gordon's release from prison in 2001 only to find no one there to pick him up. The man who had everything has been left with nothing. Flash-forward to the market just before the crash as we meet Jake and Winnie and wonder what Gordon might be up to as Rome is about to burn. Before we find out, the film sets up Jake's dynamic by detailing his remarkable loyalty to Louis Zabel (Frank Langella). Zabel has been targeted for takeover by the mega-wealthy Bretton James (Josh Brolin) and rumors about the old-timer's poor business practices and possible illegal activities have sent his company into freefall. When James buys out Zabel at a depressingly-low stock price, the crestfallen Zabel jumps in front of a train.
As he's trying to put the pieces of his own career back together and convince people to invest in the green project that he thinks is the "next bubble," Jake attends a lecture by Gekko, who is now promoting a book about what he learned in jail and the state of the new market. He's back and Jake realizes that he could help him get revenge for the hostile takeover that killed his mentor. The small problem is that Jake's fiancée Winnie never wants to see her father again. Can Jake keep his new relationship with his future father-in-law a secret long enough to watch his future fall into place? Can he really swim in the same pool as Bretton James and Gordon Gekko and expect to keep his morals and sense of justice intact?
For the majority of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the film crackles with energy courtesy of adult-driven dialogue rarely seen in the multiplex over the last few months. None of the action of the piece is dumbed-down and if you don't know what subprime loans or moral hazard means, you might want to do some research about the 2008 financial crisis before checking out the entertainment version of a tale that essentially could be true. Stone seems reinvigorated creatively, working with the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) to craft a film with personality. Not every literal metaphor – falling dominoes, bubbles bursting, a shockingly-bad shot of a ghostly Frank Langella – works but there's an energy to the filmmaking here that Stone hasn't had in the millennium before now. And Stone draws great performances out of LaBeouf, Brolin, Douglas, and Langella. (Mulligan isn't bad; merely miscast.)
Sadly, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps completely comes apart in a final scene that simply hasn't been earned by the film that preceded it. If you're borderline misanthropic and nihilistic for 100 minutes, you can't end with a hilarious song-and-dance. The end of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn't quite that bad but it's close to that unbelievable. Just leave ten minutes before the credits and you'll have seen a nearly-great film.
Rating: THREE BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: September 24th, 2010
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Carey Mulligan, Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Vanessa Ferlito, and Frank Langella
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff