Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps finds once-combative director Oliver Stone in an uncharacteristically mellow frame of mind. Some newfound serenity undoubtedly benefits him as a person, but undermines his artistry as an impassioned cinematic social critic. Righteous indignation blazes through his best films, including Platoon, Salvador, JFK and 1987's Wall Street, an unsubtle money-market morality play anchored by Michael Douglas's Machiavellian tycoon Gordon Gekko.
The 2008 stock market meltdown inspires Stone to revisit Gekko in a follow-up titled Money Never Sleeps, but despite the timely economic issues, the new Wall Street suffers from sequelitis by too closely following the story arc of the original. Lest we forget, the first Wall Street placed Charlie Sheen in an ethical dilemma, torn between his father's blue-collar decency and Gekko's luxurious lifestyle. The new film casts Shia LaBeouf in a highly similar role, and it's not much of an upgrade. LaBeouf's rising investment banker wrestles with more complex problems, but the callow performance insures that Money Never Sleeps rests on a marshmallowy foundation.
LaBeouf's motorcycle-riding Jake Moore champions green energy investments at a big firm modeled after Lehman Brothers, where he enjoys the favor of its crusty but kindly father (Frank Langella as a leonine financier in winter). The film's hero worship of Langella's character seems misplaced, since he's allowed subprime shenanigans to run his firm into the ground. Many of Money Never Sleeps' juiciest scenes take place at closed-door meetings of the Federal Reserve, where Manhattan's masters of the universe cannibalize each other at the first sign of trouble.
Josh Brolin commands Money Never Sleeps as Jake's nemesis, Mephistophelean money mogul Bretton James, a honcho at the film's equivalent to Goldman Sachs. How evil is he? He proudly displays Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Son" in his inner sanctum, which might as well be an autographed glossy photo of Satan.
Meanwhile, Gekko lurks on the sidelines delivering occasional speeches for about two-thirds of the film. The film opens with the funny scene of Gekko leaving prison as a Reagan-era dinosaur. Seven years later, he's hawking his memoir Is Greed Good?, predicting the crash of the housing bubble and generally speaking with the screenwriters' 20/20 hindsight about the market's fate. Jake just happens to be engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan) and strikes a bargain to attempt a reconciliation while benefiting from Gekko's financial acumen.
Douglas clearly relishes returning to his double-dealing signature role, but Stone overinvests in the character, who increasingly comes across as a caricature, not that far from Donald Trump on "The Apprentice." Money Never Sleeps tries to incorporate meditations on the Cambrian Explosion, a pro-fusion energy message, placid musical interludes from David Byrne and Brian Eno, along with Susan Sarandon as Jake's mother, an irresponsible realtor.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleep manages to be both oversimplified and too convoluted at the same time. Soap bubbles provide obvious, thumb-sucking imagery, but the competing ideas and plot threads frequently baffle the audience. You're often unsure which false rumor is crashing which financial institution, or how Jake, Bretton and Gekko are trying to manipulate each other. Either a tighter script or more narrative momentum could have unified Wall Street's competing ideas, but ultimately Stone's portfolio generates minimal amounts of interest.