Street cred

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

One of these guys is a big dog. The other is just a tail-wagging pup.

One of these guys is a big dog. The other is just a tail-wagging pup.

Rated 3.0

The financial meltdown of 2008-09 was just the chance Oliver Stone was waiting for—a golden opportunity to resuscitate Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the man we loved to hate in 1987’s Wall Street. If anything, Stone has more grist for his muckraking mill now than he did 23 years ago. So why does the result feel so bland?

Maybe it has something to do with casting Shia LaBeouf as the young guy. In Wall Street, the young guy was Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, a hustler with a lean and hungry look, toned and conditioned by the frantic clawing and shouting of the pit, slavering to claw his way to the top and willing to do whatever it takes—until his conscience finally kicks in and sets him right, albeit too late to save him from prison.

In Money Never Sleeps, LaBeouf plays Jake Moore, and he’s a different animal altogether, a pussycat compared to the vulpine Bud Fox. In 1987, we saw Fox before dawn at his bedroom computer to do his prep for the day’s trading, ignoring the nude woman in the bed behind him. Jake Moore, on the other hand, is in a committed relationship with Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), estranged daughter of the notorious Gordon. When she rouses Jake in the morning, saying, “Stop sleeping!” he responds in a drowsy whine: “Don’t be negative. ‘Wake up’ is positive; ‘stop sleeping’ is negative.”

When Jake gets to work, is he hungry to make good for the sake of making good? No, he wants to do good—his goal is to direct investors to an experimental fusion project out in California, run by a dweeby professor in a lab coat.

Let’s face it: This guy is a bit of a namby-pamby. Bud Fox was a young man on the make; Jake Moore is a young man on a mission. Right there, in substituting Jake for Bud (and yes, in substituting Shia for Charlie), the film loses half its edge.

The other edge isn’t as sharp as it used to be, either. We first see Gordon Gekko in a prologue set in 2001, being mustered out of prison. The guard returns his personal effects: “One wristwatch, one gold money clip, no money, one ring.” And finally: “One mobile phone,” as the guard plunks down what looks like a World War II walkie-talkie. Yep, Gordon, it’s a different world out here now.

By 2008, as Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff’s script really gets underway, Gekko is semi-rehabilitated, the author of a best seller, Is Greed Good? Rehabilitated, maybe, but unrepentant: In 1987, his mantra was “Everybody does it”; now it’s “These guys are worse than I ever was.”

We certainly get a glimpse of it in the new villain of choice: Bretton James (Josh Brolin at his lowlife best), rumor-mongering and manipulating the money market to drive Jake’s firm into bankruptcy and Jake’s boss and mentor Lew Zabel (Frank Langella) to suicide. When Jake counters with some rumor-mongering of his own, he gets James’ attention, and James hires him away from his failing company, thinking he has neutralized a possible threat. But Jake still has a few tricks up his sleeve. So does Gordon.

A good subtitle for both Wall Street movies might be Gekko and the Kid. But we understood why an amoral young gun like Bud would seek out Gordon Gekko, but why does Jake? To pick his brain or to reconcile him with Winnie?

If the former, it doesn’t make sense. If the latter, then Money Never Sleeps morphs from corporate drama to family soap opera. Maybe it’s the writers that make the difference; in 1987, Oliver Stone was coming off Platoon. Now, Loeb and Schiff are coming off The Switch and True Crime.

Director Stone gives the picture something akin to the caffeinated energy of the first film, and Douglas rips into his role with something like his old toothy relish, especially in a short bit with Charlie Sheen, playing an unbilled cameo as Bud Fox. But things have gone a little soft at the center. The difference comes home late in the movie as Gekko, riding high on ill-gotten gains, leans back, chomps down for the first time on his old trademark cigar, and snarls, “Gordon Gekko is back!”

Well, no, not exactly.