Rare is the movie character as memorable, iconic, and impactful as Gordon Gekko, the “Greed is good”-spouting financial villain who won Michael Douglas an Oscar in 1987 as Best Actor in director Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.
Douglas (right) returns to the role 23 years later in Stone’s topical sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a revisitation of the unchecked-greed syndrome after our latest financial crisis, one that has made Wall Street seem especially prophetic.
The ethically dubious and legally shaky practices that Gekko was preaching way back when — when he was saying things like the line that now serves as the sequel’s subtitle — are now apparently legal.
Shia LaBeouf — inheriting the lead role from Charlie Sheen (who turns up in a cameo appearance as Gekko’s former protege Bud Fox, his character in the original) — plays Jake Moore, a young trader who is in a romantic relationship with Gekko’s daughter Winnie.
Played by Carey Mulligan, Winnie runs a not-for-profit liberal/green website and clings to her principles, to her boyfriend, and to her estrangement from her dad, who has — in 2001 — just gotten out of federal prison after serving eight years for insider trading.
On a promotional tour for his first book (Is Greed Good?), which anticipates the 2008 financial meltdown, corporate-raider-turned-financial-writer Gekko suggests a trade with Jake: he’ll agree to help him gain revenge against the ruthless hedge fund manager played by Josh Brolin who was more or less responsible for the suicide of Jake’s mentor (Frand Langella) if Jake will help Gordon reunite with his daughter by at least getting her to talk to him, which she has thus far refused to do.
So they proceed, with Jake assuming that Gekko has reformed, is sincere, and isn’t being manipulative and self-serving as part of a scheme to get back in the “game.” Hmmm.
Stone (W., World Trade Center, JFK, Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), regretful that Wall Street‘s Gekko became an accidental role model rather than a one-man cautionary tale, tries to rectify that misinterpretation as he works from a script by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff that offers crisp, smart dialogue, and is ultimately about forgiveness and redemption, which is why the ending is, satisfying or not, probably too contrived and pat.
LaBeouf, in his first real adult role, acquits himself nicely, and Mulligan is as capable and appealing as ever. But this is Douglas’s baby and, all these years later, he still wears this character like a second skin. Because we already know Gekko, the electricity triggered as we discovered this character and watched him do his disreputable thing in the original is toned down. But Douglas remains consummately commanding and charismatic in the role, never faltering, even when the narrative sags or the complicated financial exposition takes the wheel.
Stone may have a few too many balls in the air, trying to tell an emotional father-daughter story and a romantic love story even while he dramatizes financial wheeling and dealing and educates us about why and in what way our recent money travails have occurred. But if there’s a sin here, it’s overambitiousness on his part, and that’s easy to forgive in a movie this well written, surehandedly acted, and consistently entertaining.
So we’ll invest in 2½ stars out of 4 for the greed-indeed bookend drama, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Oliver Stone may not have invested his energy and expertise with perfect wisdom, but he still manages to gives us our money’s worth.