Oliver Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps doesn't have the clean, fablelike arc of its predecessor, the tale about Charlie Sheen's upstart-broker Bud Fox and Michael Douglas' Wall Street-player Gordon Gekko). Only the buccaneer charisma of Douglas' signature role obscured the "clean business, clean soul" moral of Wall Street, released two months after 1987's Black Monday. But everything is so much murkier now.
The business-section pages have begun decoding Wall Street 2, with pieces in The New York Times and The New York Observer matching the film's creations to real-life models: The white-shoe "Keller-Zabel" firm, for example, is a Bear Stearns-Lehman Brothers amalgam.
The firm employs whiz-kid proprietary trader Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a specialist in alternative energy, whose story begins in oblivious, pre-crash 2008 as he sights a gathering storm in the gray, lost expression of Lew Zabel (Frank Langella), managing partner and his father figure. Foundered by rumored toxic subprime debt, Lew goes before the Federal Reserve Board, a 3-ton conference table of the old, the white and the ugly, including Eli Wallach as a relic who predates the income tax, ending every proclamation with a fluttering bird call.
The hope of clemency is cut off when Mephistophelean hedge-fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin), of Churchill Schwartz, leans into the frame: "Your valuations are no longer believable" are the words that drop like a guillotine.
Negotiating a humiliating fire sale in payback for a grudge from the dot-com bubble burst, James leaves Zabel for dead, and Jake goes looking for revenge and a new mentor. One possibility is the estranged father of the girl he's going to marry, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan).
Coming out of Sing Sing in the film's prologue, dad Douglas' aquiline profile could belong to a hungover Founding Father. Made an example of by the Securities and Exchange Commission and spurned by his only relation, Douglas' Gordon Gekko has become a prophet in the wilderness of financial doomsday, hawking his book Is Greed Good? on the lecture circuit. "You're the NINJA generation — no income, no job, no assets," he tells a crowd of 20-somethings, including Jake, who starts meeting with Gekko behind Winnie's back, pumping the guru for advice in exchange for facilitating a family reunion.
Jake's other role model is his new boss, James himself. Impressed by the kid's sabotage attempts, James keeps his enemy closer at Churchill Schwartz.
There's no sense of moral suspense in Jake and James' uneasy partnership. Tellingly, LaBeouf is most convincing opposite Susan Sarandon, playing his McMansion-flipping mother.
"It's very hard to do a financial movie, to make stocks and bonds sexy and interesting," Stone told Fortune on Wall Street's 20th anniversary, before a bull market for white-collar wickedness greenlighted a follow-up. He does his utmost. In addition to his stop-motion scudding clouds, we have eccentric cell-phone split screens, and the Dow Jones arches and plunges along downtown's skyline.
The "stocks and bonds" story moves along nicely in fact. But Jake's personal-is-professional merger with the Gekko family shows a tendency to melodrama unredeemed by wit. Working in the good-guy field of "saltwater fusion," he's no idealist. "The only green is money, honey," he tells the fiancée, whose pretty Swiss bank account he'll sweet-talk his way into while clandestinely meeting with Gekko, who's working angles all his own.
"We're all mixed bags" is the conclusion of unwieldy mixed-bag Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. If barely prosecuted, the real players in our last crash face a long pop-culture pillorying. But that is not how Stone works here. Regarding power, the conclusions are best summed up by the hippie chick at the Lincoln Memorial in Nixon: "You can't stop it, can you? Even if you wanted to. It's not you. It's the system."
Floating off on a faux-naïve happy ending, one takes the lesson that there are no villains — or that villains are all there are.