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Greed Is Good for Nothing

MOVIE REVIEW
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall-street-money-never-sleeps-michael-douglas-shia-labeouf-josh-brolin
Barry Wetcher/20th Century Fox

Twenty-three years after Gordon Gekko told us greed was good, Oliver Stone revives everyone’s favorite slick huckster for “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” On one level, the decision’s a no-brainer: the highfalutin white-collar crime that spurred the Great Recession practically makes one nostalgic for the era of insider trading and backroom wheeling and dealing that Gekko represents.

At the same time, the film surrounding the resurrected Gekko (Michael Douglas) further emphasizes the collapse of Mr. Stone’s creative faculties. The one-time expert dramatist — sullied by the follies of “Alexander,” “W.” and his subpar documentary work — stages scenes with pulsating precision. The picture features several virtuoso sequences, none more affecting than the carefully pitched, intricate depiction of the professional and social crumbling of Wall Street big shot Louis Zabel (Frank Langella).

But Mr. Stone loses his grasp of the overall narrative, minimizing the key aura of intimate authenticity and the broader universal themes of friendship, loyalty and betrayal that the material requires. In their stead, Mr. Stone and screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff offer talk of futures, loans, alternative energy and other topical buzzwords, a labyrinthine revenge scheme that never satisfyingly develops and a miscast romance between two woefully mismatched actors.

This time around, Mr. Stone turns to young hotshot Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), as his way into the forbiddingly glamorous world of the Street. Jake made such an impact working in Louis’s firm that the old man hands the kid a $1.5 million check right before his demise. With a beautiful penthouse apartment featuring full glass views of the Empire State Building, the self-made Wall Streeter has it good.

But it’s the spring of 2008 and a financial storm, centered on a mountain of debt, is brewing. With those dark clouds on the horizon coloring all, Jake finds himself working for Bretton James (Josh Brolin), the man who ruined Louis and conspiring to take him down. Helping him, illicitly? Good old Gordon, the erstwhile shark of “Wall Street,” who’s become a celebrated figure on the interview and lecture circuits — a prognosticator of the coming doom — since his 2001 release from prison.

Mr. Stone invests his direction of the consistently lively picture with great feeling, capturing the city’s energy with flair. His camera soars across the Hudson River and through Manhattan’s skyscrapers; it pulls above the rows of tables at a crowded, black-tie event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sleekness approaches satire, with the pristine visuals suggesting some profound, dark cracks.

On the other hand, Mr. Stone gluts up the picture with cheesy superimpositions and clunky graphics more at home on a cable news broadcast than as transitions in a major motion picture detailing such dark moral territory. Except for two shadowy boardroom scenes at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, with shadows looming large as the hulking, scared erstwhile masters of the universe hash out the country’s future, the movie’s too bright and showy, wrapped into a neat little flashy bow. Cameos — Charlie Sheen, Mr. Stone himself sporting a ridiculous earring — enhance the self-referential tone and further lessen the dramatic impact.

Ultimately, Mr. Stone bestows the greatest weight on Mr. LaBeouf, the everyman seduced by power but healthily skeptical, who must serve as the audience’s way into this elite universe. The actor gives it his all, modulating the sleaziness he so ably projects; but there’s no soul to his performance, no heft, none of the deep abiding feeling a great actor should bring to the enactment of a profound moral crisis. He and Ms. Mulligan, reportedly a real life couple, fail to convince on screen. She’s distant, morose and shortchanged by the screenplay’s failure to develop the hinted-at deep-rooted daddy issues that draw her to Jake.

The time is certainly ripe for another “Wall Street”; and in Mr. Stone’s sequel, the elements of an entertaining, superficial thriller are largely in place. But given the gravity of what we’ve all experienced, the tragically wide reach of those boardroom decisions, the current economic crisis deserves a deeper, more truthful enterprise. Mr. Stone almost gets there, employing a restrained, observational approach in the Louis scenes, which movingly illustrates the human tragedy at the heart of all the wheeling and dealing. They cease at minute 15, however, and the picture never recovers.

WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS

Opens on Sept. 24 in the United States and on Oct. 6 in Britain.

Directed by Oliver Stone; written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, based on characters created by Stanley Weiser and Mr. Stone; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Julie Munroe and David Brenner; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Kristi Zea; costumes by Ellen Mirojnick; produced by Edward R. Pressman and Eric Kopeloff; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Michael Douglas (Gordon Gekko), Shia LaBeouf (Jake Moore), Josh Brolin (Bretton James), Carey Mulligan (Winnie Gekko), Eli Wallach (Julie Steinhardt), Susan Sarandon (Sylvia Moore), Frank Langella (Louis Zabel) and Vanessa Ferlito (Audrey).

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