Trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) lives with Winnie (Carey Mulligan), estranged daughter of disgraced Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). When banker Bretton James (Josh Brolin) drives senior broker Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) to suicide, Jake approaches the seemingly reformed Gekko to enlist his help in revenge. Meanwhile, the sub-prime mortgage crisis puts a strain on the global economy.
Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, introduced in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street in 1987, is among the signature film characters of his decade: a financial Terminator, a boardroom Top Gun, Jason with a mobile phone the size of a brick. As with all the best villains, it’s almost a shame he has to lose. Money Never Sleeps echoes another two decades-on sequel, The Color Of Money — from the teaming of a veteran leading man (there, Paul Newman reprising his role from The Hustler) with a young up-and-comer (there, Tom Cruise in his last apprentice role before he became huge), to a plot which gradually puts its beaten protagonist back together. Douglas even gets a variation on Newman’s last line (“I’m back”); Money Never Sleeps would be better if it were the sign-off, but there’s another reel to run.
Wall Street was written by Stone and Stanley Weiser; this sequel was developed by producer Edward R. Pressman, and scripted by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff without the director’s help. Given Stone’s fascination with America’s mini-apocalypses, from JFK through Nixon to W., from Platoon through Natural Born Killers to World Trade Center, it was inevitable he would be the man to put the credit crunch and subsequent financial meltdown on film. However, there’s a weird mismatch between financial and emotional stories: for most of the film, Gekko is on the margins, rumpled and contrite and not at all the shark in a suit we probably wanted to see when we bought our tickets. There are glints of the old monster and heavy signposts that he’s still playing head-games with a new financial Faust, but mostly, Douglas is in disappointingly meek form. Josh Brolin, held over from W., plays the current incarnation of financial Beelzebub — driving nice old Frank Langella (if he were a British actor, he’d be knighted) to step under a subway train and wheedling for a bank bail-out which a government official claims is tantamount to “nationalisation… socialism … the things I’ve fought against all my life”.
The notion that Carey Mulligan could be the spawn of Michael Douglas and Sean Young is bizarre, and (as in Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull) Shia LaBeouf seems cast on the principle that he’s no threat to a veteran star. LaBeouf has no equivalent to Cruise’s Werewolves Of London pool virtuoso scene, nor gives any indication he could handle it if it were provided (there’s a motorbike-racing bit, with helmeted doubles). With the star working at half-throttle for most of the film, and juvenile leads who detract from the story rather than add to it, Money Never Sleeps risks being a long haul. That it’s not is down to Stone’s command of this world — no-one directs better boardroom conclaves, and this is studded with great plotting-and-confrontation scenes.
If there’s a breakout performance, it’s from 95 year-old Eli Wallach as Jules Steinhardt, a veteran money man who goes back to the original Wall Street crash. This has no new catchphrases to equal “greed is good”, but Wallach’s gnomic statements — illustrated by whistling bird noises and gestures — are almost on a par with any pithy slogans.
This subject demands a Godfather Part II, but Stone and collaborators have turned in a Godfather Part III. There is a lot of good material, but LaBeouf nearly sinks it and we could use much more of the old Gekko brimstone.