It’s hard not to respect Oliver Stone’s ambition. Watching his belated sequel to Wall Street (1987), you realize that Stone wanted to retell the story of our recent financial collapse, and he wanted to do it his way: with heroes, villains and fancy Steadicam work.
Stone’s subject is a confluence of causes so complex that you can listen to the now-classic “This American Life” episode “The Giant Pool of Money” 10 times and still feel like you’re only starting to grasp what went wrong. The film’s dialogue is thick with terms such as “credit-default swaps.” Overweening showman that he is, Stone tries to give this mess a dramatic arc.
At times he succeeds. But the sequel tries to do too many things, and a lot of them just aren’t that interesting. The original Wall Street was a simple drama with a classic American theme: the price of success. Charlie Sheen was a boy on the make, torn between the solid values of his working-class dad and the allure of ruthless financial wizard Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). If he wanted to be very, very rich, he’d have to betray the former.
Money Never Sleeps replaces Sheen’s character with Shia LaBeouf as Jake Moore, a young trader who lacks such hard choices. Right out of college (or so it appears), he lives with a leftist blogger (Carey Mulligan) in a huge loft and pushes alternative-energy investments. Sheen’s Bud Fox was a slimy, charismatic little striver — that’s what made him fun to watch. Jake, who has huge bonuses and a claim to the moral high ground, isn’t that compelling even when his world starts to fall apart. LaBeouf and Mulligan are supposed to be our relatable young heroes, but they spend most of the movie just reacting, their eyes moistening at the awfulness of it all.
That’s partly because Mulligan’s estranged dad is Gordon Gekko, free after a record-breaking white-collar prison sentence and back to remind everyone greed is good (and today, he says, “greed is greedier”). For better or worse, the movie belongs to Douglas. Screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff try to work up suspense about whether Gekko has changed his ways. But audiences aren’t likely to fall for his new subway-riding, sympathy-courting persona — or to boo for the generic new financier villain played by Josh Brolin.
No, what we want from Gekko is straight talk couched in a colorful idiom. And on this score the film doesn’t disappoint — his dialogue abounds in made-up aphorisms and cockeyed metaphors. (Of Brolin’s character’s acumen: “He runs between the raindrops — he’s like a monkey dancing on a razor blade!”)
Watching earnest little LaBeouf trying to get his head around the non sequiturs Douglas spews is good fun. But the thing is, big parts of this story really happened. For millions of Americans, the downward slide is still happening. We want our most successful modern leftist director to say something about it — something besides “Family is important” and “You little people shouldn’t have bought all that real estate.”
Then again, maybe Gekko said all Stone really has to say back in 1987, when he informed Sheen, “The richest 1 percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth ... We make the rules, pal ... Now, you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy? It’s the free market. And you’re a part of it.”
If Stone had managed to marry the hard facts about credit-default swaps and consumers’ complicity to the muckraking fervor behind that rhetoric, he might have made a great film. As it is, Money Never Sleeps feels like way too little, way too soon.