Review: ‘Money Never Sleeps’

Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf star in "Wall Street" sequel. (Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

In 1987, Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” tapped into the 80s culture of excess more effectively than any other film of its time. Now, Stone is back with a star-studded cast to cover the 2008 financial meltdown in the glossy sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

The movie, screened for Stanford students last Friday by the Stanford Film Society, has all the makings of a great film – strong performances, Stone’s directing and, above all, timeliness. But while entertaining at some parts, and despite the elements working for it, “Money Never Sleeps” just never fully delivered what it promised.

The sequel picks up 23 years after the original movie. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) has been out of prison for seven years and is back in the public consciousness with his new book, “Is Greed Good?” Gekko’s resurgence catches the eye of Wall Street upstart Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who happens to be engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), an aspiring Internet journalist who, unsurprisingly, despises Wall Street. Jacob is determined to patch up the father-daughter relationship mostly because of his love for Winnie – not to mention the convenient connections and wealth that await him with reconciliation. Matters are complicated when Jacob suspects the suicide of his mentor and Wall Street legend Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella) may have had something to do with his corrupt hedge fund manager Bretton James, played by a deliciously devious Josh Brolin.

Douglas reprises his Oscar-winning role as Gekko, a man whose moral compass remains determinedly obscured throughout the film, even when he pulls out the poignant stops to win back his daughter. LaBeouf has come a long way from his Disney Channel days on “Even Stevens.” In “Money Never Sleeps,” the young actor turns in a believably adult performance as the eager, ambitious Jacob. The unexpected weak spot is Mulligan – despite critical raves for her part in “An Education,” here she spends the movie doing little more than mope and make sad puppy-dog faces at Jacob. While Winnie isn’t your typical Hollywood arm candy, she becomes a tormented drag.

Composition-wise, the hyper editing and transitions should tap into this generation’s frenzied technologic addiction, but here it does more harm than good. Stone takes it too far – superimposing Zabel’s face over a bathroom stall while Jacob pensively washes his hands was more laughable than thoughtful.

In the end, Stone may have tried too hard to push his message. Instead of sharp, the director comes off preachy. Jacob and Winnie are good people who want to save the world with green energy, but are stifled by evil Wall Street suits. Environment good. Businessmen bad.

Clearly Brolin’s James can’t get away with his wicked, greedy deeds. And then there’s Gekko and his classic conundrum – power and ambition or mushy gushy family? Stone is so intent to drive home that greed is, in fact, not good that he misses his chance to make a smart, relevant film. In “Money Never Sleeps,” he treads too heavily, his intentions blaringly obvious; what comes out instead is a clunky, verbose snore.