Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is rife with deficiencies, not least of which is that Shia LaBeouf stars as a hotshot trader even though the actor—just a year removed from playing an 18-year-old college freshman in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—doesn’t look much older than Charlie Brown. Still, LaBeouf is at least the equal of baby-faced Charlie Sheen, whom he dully replaces here as the new profit-hungry apprentice seduced by Gordon Gekko. His role is thus as de rigueur as this sequel is needless, a rehash in both template and message that dutifully deals with short-selling and subprime mortgage catastrophes, as well as casts interpersonal relationships as akin to financial transactions, yet provides scant insight into the recent Wall Street collapse and the reckless institutional behavior that caused it.
As in his superior original, Oliver Stone’s follow-up damns with one hand but can’t help glorifying with the other. Consequently, while the director takes greater pains than before to castigate the greed and subterfuge of our economic system, he’s also apparently powerless to resist luxuriating in the rich mahogany offices and swank, view-tastic penthouse apartments of the cream-of-the-crop, and to revel in the rows and rows of dangling diamond earrings worn by the elite’s female escorts at gala events.
Eight years after finishing his prison term for insider trading, Gekko (Michael Douglas) is, in 2008, a former shark now struggling to stay afloat, making a name for himself with a book dubbed (as a riff on his famous proclamation on avarice) Is Greed Good? When he hears Gekko publicly lecture about the downside of America’s insatiable materialism, Jake (LaBeouf) is immediately entranced by the once-titan, entering into a cautious affiliation with the man aided by the fact that he’s dating, and plans to marry, Gekko’s daughter, liberal website editor Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Conveniently, both want revenge against the same man, banking bigwig Bretton James (Josh Brolin), since Bretton ratted Gekko out to the feds as well as destroyed the firm Jake worked for, which in turn drove Jake’s mentor (Frank Langella) to jump in front of a subway train. Gekko agrees to this tentative partnership because Jake is willing to overstep legalities for his own selfish purposes (like father-in-law, like son-in-law!). And, also, because Jake remains idealistic enough—his pet cause is backing a green fusion-energy company, and he’s the type to constantly “bail out” his imprudent real-estate broker mother (Susan Sarandon)—to be the perfect patsy for Gekko, whose real objective involves snagging a $100 million Swiss bank account in his estranged daughter’s custody.
In a transparent bid to atone for Wall Street’s positive reception in the very corridors of power it was intended to censure, Money Never Sleeps not only has Gekko bluntly articulate how very, very bad greed is, but—after having him soon revert back to oily manipulator form—reduces him to sentimental mush during a finale in which sonogram pictures induce 180-degree changes of heart. Stone’s aerial shots of metropolitan skylines still glisten seductively, and are enhanced by stock market graph lines superimposed over towering buildings and edifices, which suggest the stock market’s global influence. The director’s computer-graphic interludes regarding fusion energy, however, seem to have been teleported in from a 1987 PBS special, and for all the market jargon, the script’s underlying dramatics prove crudely sermon-ish.
A formulaic rise-fall-rise arc is followed so doggedly that Stone’s missteps stand out in sharp relief, from an unnecessary, narcissistic cameo by the director himself, to a soundtrack of songs by David Byrne and Brian Eno (from their recent collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today) that succeeds only in clumsily calling attention to itself. Content to merely say what its predecessor said 23 years ago, and more elegantly to boot, there’s no revelation to these blunt, garish, perfunctory proceedings, only “timely” moralizing and the negligible pleasures to be found in campy supporting turns from Brolin, Langella, and Eli Wallach, the latter as a CEO prone to ending sentences with perplexing bird noises and fluttering hand gestures. Still, at least Douglas once again embodies predatory white-collar malevolence with relish, and via a scene in which he interrupts his long-awaited father-daughter reunion to greet a colleague who doesn’t recognize him—an act that reveals his pitiful need for attention and clout—the actor’s desperate expression complicates the character far more interestingly than the rest of Stone’s climactic plotting.