There’s a reason that everyone has been renting or buying or Netflix-ing the shit out of the original ‘Wall Street‘ in preparation for the sequel. For all its zeitgeist-capturing zest, it’s a remarkably conventional film, both in terms of story and direction. As much as people are trying to bring themselves up to speed for the new film, they’re also doing it because, well, the first movie isn’t all that memorable. Yes, it features a pair of iconic performances from Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko – the grand wizard of Reagan-era greed – and Charlie Sheen as the youngster who gets caught up in it. It also has sturdy direction from a pre-‘JFK‘ Oliver Stone. But, really, ‘Wall Street’ seems more like a template to bounce satirical notions about current economic strife off of, not a viable film franchise. Yet here we are, with ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ upon us. And, I’ll be damned if it isn’t a good deal of fun in its own right. Still, 20 years from now, will anybody remember this one?
‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ opens with Gekko being released from prison. The year is 2001. He’s given his possessions, intoned gravely by a prison guard (“Money clip with no money in it”), before picking up his suitcase-sized phone and heading outside, where no one is waiting to pick him up. In these early moments, there’s a kind of resignation and sadness to the character that we’ve never seen before. In the first movie, he’s almost 100% showboating blowhard. From this quick scene, we race forward several years, and the movie completely reorients the audience. Now we’re following Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a young trader in a large, Lehman Brothers-esque operation led by a kindly godhead (Frank Langella). After the firm gets into financial trouble, it’s forced to plead to the fed, which takes up residency in a star chamber-like room around a giant, lacquered table. It’s there that a leading competitor (Josh Brolin) decides to basically kill the business, which leads Langella to take his own life. This infuses the movie with a weird revenge vibe and gives LaBeouf a reason to go after Brolin.
Then there’s the matter of Gekko, whose daughter (the adorable Carey Mulligan) is engaged to LaBeouf. She wants nothing to do with her father. LaBeouf has been seeing him behind her back, because he’s providing invaluable information about how to take down Brolin. This is the heart of the movie, for the most part, and also the most problematic. These scenes often veer dangerously close to melodrama.
There are also other plot threads, which sometimes amuse and sometimes just muddle, but the clarity of Stone’s filmmaking is what really gets me. He slathers this baby in editorial flourishes, from irises to slit screens to – during one scene – the trading of stocks being realized visually as glittery towers of information that zoom along. And zoom along they do: the movie has a breathless pace even if it has a hard time juggling all of the narrative elements in a way that’s satisfying. (It’s a bit baggy at 130 minutes.) The performances are across-the-board stupendous. Douglas’ Gekko, a role he won an Oscar for, is more of a supporting character here. He’s off-screen for large swaths of the movie. But that doesn’t mean that his presence isn’t felt. You get the impression that LaBeouf is becoming a better actor just by standing in close proximity to Douglas.
The movie is fun and moves along at a nice (wallet) clip, while offering some occasionally barbed jabs at the financial industry. At one point, Gekko stares at a television screen emblazoned with some fraudulent bankers and says, “Compared to these guys, I was nothing!” Really, you can’t go wrong with this cast. It’s also nice to see director Oliver Stone being a little more playful after the well-told but frustratingly mundane ‘W.‘ Watching the film, you get the impression that money never sleeps, and neither does Oliver Stone.