Movie Review: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Photo: 20th Century Fox

NOTE: This review was originally published on May 14, 2010 after I screened Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival.

For a long time, one of the reasons a sequel to Oliver Stone’s 1987 Oscar-winner Wall Street was never made was due to the fact it would be hard to make it timely in an ever-changing economy. In 2008 I Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t necessarily a welcome one as the economy hasn’t changed nearly enough in the past two years, and the issues presented in Wall Street 2 are still just as relevant as they were in 2008. However, if a solid movie is any kind of silver-lining I guess we can look at Stone’s Wall Street sequel as just that.

Opening in 2001 we are once again introduced to Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) as he is released from time served in prison for securities fraud, money laundering and racketeering, all of which we witnessed in Douglas’s Oscar-winning turn in the original feature. We quickly flash forward in time seven years and meet young upstart Jake Moore played by Shia LaBeouf in a role seemingly tailor made for his quick wit and ability to hustle through rather wordy dialogue and still keep the audience in the moment.

Jake is an idealist and he’s been a Wall Street whiz since a young age. He’s making millions as a trader at Keller Zabel Investments under the mentoring of Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) and he’s in a happy relationship with his girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who just so happens to be Gekko’s daughter. However, this happy arrangement is about to have its bubble burst.

A drastic shift in the marketplace causes Keller Zabel’s stock price to plummet, the investment bank is denied a bail-out from the Federal Reserve and the film’s ultimate villain rears his head in the form of Bretton James played by Josh Brolin.

While some of the tactics from the first Wall Street are duplicated here, this feels like a legitimate sequel that simply came along at the right time. However, tonally, I would say the biggest difference this film enjoys from its predecessor is that while it oozes money, it doesn’t glamorize the industry to such an extent. I have a hard time believing this wasn’t Stone’s specific intent.

Stone has always said he was shocked by the response to Wall Street. He would have people coming up to him saying how they got into the financial business as a result of that movie. How they wanted to be Gordon Gekko. He couldn’t wrap his head around why people would actually idolize the villain from his film, a man that ultimately spent several years in prison for his misdeeds. My theory on this is people are drawn to Gekko’s power and felt they would follow in his greedy ambitions, while staying above the illegalities. With Wall Street 2 the consequences are much higher than merely jail time.

Most of the relationships in Wall Street were empty and money-driven, here they are real. Jake has something of a father-son relationship with Louis Zabel that’s noticeable from the first minute we see them together. His relationship with Winnie is fascinating for a Hollywood movie. While it’s stereotypical “girl without a father” territory, there’s a legitimacy to it. It’s never over-played to the point it lapses into melodrama, outside of a rather convenient ending, which I’m willing to overlook as a result of the rest of the feature.

Admittedly, the plot for Wall Street 2 surprised me. The idea of a sequel being made over 20 years after the first film seemed like a cash grab — the moment was right and they pounced. But it works to the point an idealistic, yet greedy, trader as embodied by Jake is believable. Josh Brolin as Bretton James is perfect. He’s slimy, calculating, cocky and powerful, a disastrous combination in movies if there ever was one. And Gekko… is Gekko.

There wouldn’t be a movie had they not been able to get Douglas back in the saddle as Gordon Gekko, the character that introduced the “Greed… is good” mantra into American culture and it’s never going away. Douglas hasn’t lost any of what he brought to the character 23 years ago, but the character has changed. A hint of a smile as he baits the hook in his first meeting with Jake, unbeknownst to Winnie, reminds us of the man we already know, but his desire to reconcile with the only family he has left is a side of Gordon we had yet to see.

As usual, Oliver Stone is sure to bring his own touches to the film, such as hazy backgrounds and a comical Louis Zabel “over the shoulder” moment. But you expect that from Stone who appeared to be having a lot of fun with this, not only through his typical directorial eccentricities, but in using ancient wipes for scene transitions, metaphorical overlapping of characters while Jake takes a phone call, screwball picture-in-picture moments and uses of split-screen. I don’t recall ever seeing an Oliver Stone film that seemed this playful all while managing to hit on some quality dramatic notes.

Stone also gives himself a role in this film as he did in the original. He also brings back Charlie Sheen for an unnecessary, but fun, reunion of Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko and even brings back Sylvia Miles as the easily recognizable New York realtor.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t nearly as serious as the original, but it manages to swim in the same waters despite the two decades between the films and the change in the marketplace. This time around the greed of Gordon Gekko is now sought on an even higher level by the banks and their partners whom when asked how much money is enough can only answer, “More.” While “More” isn’t as catchy as “Greed is good,” it certainly gets to the heart of the matter.