Not only does money never sleep. Money’s a bitch, too. So proclaims Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). He goes on to warn, she keeps one eye open at night, watching you, and if you don’t pay close attention, “some night she’ll be gone.” Gordon makes this little speech on a subway: he’s riding with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), instructing and baiting him. The kid’s caught off guard: “Gee,” he mumbles, “I never thought of money as a she!”
Of course not. He’s only enraptured by making it, thrilled to be considered a special young dynamo, and oh yes, engaged to marry Gordon Gekko’s daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Near the start of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Jake’s cool with all he has and will have, his money shaping his daily life and his expectations. He likes his grandfatherly mentor (Frank Langella) and supports his mother (Susan Sarandon), even when she makes bad real estate sales decisions. When Dr. Masters (Austin Pendleton), a scientist working on green “fusion” technology out in California, phones him to ask for money, Jake doesn’t blink, promising he’ll deliver $100 million. In a week. “You just keep building that baby star,” Jake assures the man he believes will change the world. Jake, as they say, has “got this.”
Until he doesn’t. This being Oliver Stone’s long-gestating, self-important sequel to Wall Street, Jake will be learning some harsh life lessons, beginning with that gnarly one about money’s gender. While you know how venal Gordon has been, and Winnie resents him for being a bad dad, Jake is confused. Initially living in the (fictional, pre-recession) world Gordon made, he’s like all the other hotshots on Wall Street, believing that the old man might have take some short cuts and broken a law or too, but still, his understanding of the system is awesome.
Despite your previous knowledge, the movie helps you to share Jake’s perspective, first by following Gordon’s exit from prison. Locked up for eight years, he emerges with his effects in a bag (a silk handkerchief, a watch, a gold money clip with no money in it, and a mammoth mobile phone from the olden days. It’s a cute visual gag, intimating that Gordon’s a dinosaur, or missed too much time on the beat to be relevant. But as soon as he steps outside the gate, watching his fellow releasees greeted warmly by relatives and, in the case of a gangsta type, a limo bearing large men in gaudy jewelry, the camera tips up and begins to circle him. Set against an empty sky, Douglas’s face is frankly breathtaking, weathered and magnificent. This is the reason to make this movie, this one shot.
And then it’s over, and Gordon’s awesomeness turns less impressive, more banal, and definitely more Oliver-Stoneian. Never subtle (Elias with his arms up, Wayne Gale reduced to bloody pulp, Willie Beamen watching Ben Hur), the filmmaker here ups his own slam-bang-symbols ante. Gordon asserts the significance of time: you see hourglasses and calendars. The economy is about to collapse: you see children blowing bubbles. Jake’s employer goes under (à la Lehman Brothers) and the room full of cocky, frustrated suits includes Henry Paulson and Tim Geithner lookalikes.
That room also includes Josh Brolin as Gordon’s emotional heir, a monster named Bretton. In his next-generation battle with Jake, the abjectly iniquitous Bretton hires him in an effort to own and exploit the kid’s smartness, while Jake is rather Bud-Foxish in his waffling (he doesn’t go so far as to wonder on a balcony, “Who am I?” but maybe only because he doesn’t have a balcony). His interest in green tech suggests he has a conscience, in a global, abstract sort of way, but his intermittent insensitivity regarding Winnie suggests he’s essentially a lout too. As he seeks out Gordon as a mentor (under the guise of reuniting him with his daughter, to help her heal), Jake can’t help but trip over himself.
Repeating the pattern of the first film, the boys battle it out (literally, they race motorbikes, leaning over their handlebars in leather jackets, looking utterly silly). And poor Winnie, emblem of Jake’s aspirational decency, appears in tears in nearly every scene. She runs a leftish website (when she tells her dad it’s nonprofit, he practically gags). She’s absent from those scenes when major decisions are made whether regarding investment banks or her own future. Because he loves her, however ineptly, he’s okay. Her dad loves her too, sort of, and he’s more okay than he was in Wall Street. The sequel hints that he’s reformed, then that he hasn’t, as he’s pitching his new book, titled Is Greed Good?. (Answer: depends on who’s benefitting.) “You’re the NINJA generation: no income, no job, no assets,” he chides an audience of Jake’s-age Gordon wannabes.
They cheer and smile, exchanging looks with each to check their understandings of what Gordon’s saying (cheating is inevitable and righteous). A rock star, Gordon’s so in love with himself he’s unable to imagine the pain he’s caused his daughter (he lectures her on how hard his life has been) and not a little proud of the havoc wreaked by his already-ancient role-modeling. Not his fault the system broke down, he reasons, because “No one is responsible because everyone’s drinking the same Kool-aid.” The crisis has been caused, he goes on, by “steroid banking.” And again, “The mother of all evil is speculation.”
Um, yes. The sheer blandness of Gordon’s insights into the recession makes you wonder why anyone was waiting for him to get out of prison. Or why anyone was thinking this movie was a good idea.