Oliver Stone’s Wall Street felt like a film willed into being by its times. A capstone to the anything-goes economy of the Reagan ’80s, it arrived on the heels of a 1987 stock-market crash and amid a flurry of stories of illegal behavior inspired by the notion that, as Michael Douglas’ über-trader Gordon Gekko so memorably put it, “greed is good.” Though guilty of the same overstatement that characterizes, well, all of Stone’s films, it’s at heart a sturdy morality tale, the story of a kid who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for money and stainless-steel kitchen appliances, then tries to snatch it back before it’s too late.
With the economy still reeling from the 2008 collapse, the time would seem to be right for a return trip to the world of Wall Street, and the opening stretch of its sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, suggests Stone had the right idea when he decided to revisit it. Directing with a sweeping muscularity—abetted by the superstar Steadicam work of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto—Stone opens by showing the collapse of a Lehman Brothers-like investment house from the viewpoint of a scrappy young trader (Shia LaBeouf) still idealistic enough to channel time and money into funding an alternative-energy research project. Aghast, LaBeouf watches as the institution crumbles, taking mentor Frank Langella with it. Clearly, he needs another role model if he’s to survive in the world of high finance.
Enter Douglas’ Gekko, who’s conveniently also the estranged father of LaBeouf’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan). Having served time for the crimes of the ’80s, he’s reinvented himself as a cautionary tale, writing a book called Is Greed Good? and delivering anti-motivational lectures to college kids, explaining the dimness of their financial future. After LaBeouf introduces himself following one of these appearances, he and Douglas initiate a series of trades in which Douglas provides information about the truth behind the collapse of Langella’s firm—particularly the role played by the sharkish Josh Brolin—in return for an opportunity to reunite with Mulligan.
The first scenes between LaBeouf and Douglas feel electric, as Douglas casually tosses off backhanded compliments about his new friend’s interest in green energy—“It’s the next bubble”—while LaBeouf sups on the wisdom of a man who’s seen it all. Now if only the film knew what it wanted to do with that relationship—or any relationship, really. Once the unrepentant demon of the financial district, Gekko shifts personalities from scene to scene. That’s partly because the film plays coy about his real motives, but it mostly seems to be a part of the general aimlessness that eventually plagues the film. Still, Douglas creates some striking moments in spite of the confusion, particularly in a monologue about a drug-addicted son that’s close to autobiography.
Stone mixes familiar moments of corporate intrigue with terms from the recent financial meltdown that never get properly explained. (There’s no missing the significance of Stone’s repeated use of falling-domino imagery, or the barely metaphorical shots of bursting bubbles.) The film’s urgency evaporates the deeper it gets into the plot and the more concerned it grows with finger-pointing, particularly in a subplot involving Susan Sarandon as LaBeouf’s real-estate-investing mom. The first time around, Wall Street felt like a warning about the perils of excess just as excess started to exact its toll. This one’s little more than a reminder that we all got, and remain, screwed. Noted.