‘Wall Street 2’: Is Greed Still Good?

Photo Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

In many ways, the conflict at the heart of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” has nothing to do with the return of disgraced corporate pirate, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), or with the personal ethical dilemmas of hot up-and-comer Jake Moore (Shia LeBeouf). Rather, Stone’s film pits the ethos — or lack thereof — of the 1980s against the similarly lacking ethos of the 2000s; and the result is disconcerting and, dare I say it, dazzling.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is less of a sequel to Stone’s landmark 1987 original than a cinematic exploration of the panic of 2008, replete with popping bubbles, falling dominoes and empty or emptying homes; but with Gordon Gekko’s descendents — filial and financial — at the helm.

Despite a poor lead performance from Shia LeBeouf and the overbearing legacy of the original, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” succeeds on the strength of its supporting cast; this strength coming specifically from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s beautiful renderings of New York and Stone’s startling recreation of the 2008 market collapse.

When we meet Gekko, he is being released from prison after eight years with nothing but $1,000 and a mobile phone the size of a small dog. When we meet Jake Moore seven years later in the summer of 2008, he is climbing the ranks of investment banking and planning a life together with Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Gekko is back in the news as an author and prophet of doom, warning everyone, with little effect, of the impending economic meltdown.

After the suicide of Jake’s mentor, Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella), along with the first pangs of the financial collapse, Moore solicits Gekko’s advice and killer instinct in return for his assistance in reconciling with Winnie. However, the fates of the protagonists and antagonists aren’t what is most compelling about the film.

And neither is LeBeouf, who is rather insufferable as a leading man, with all of the desire to be great and none of the ability. LeBeouf’s bad accent and obnoxiously modern wardrobe place in sharp relief to Douglas’ masterful return as Gordon Gekko.

Gekko is evil reborn and then is rebranded as good. Rather, he personifies the notion that the only cure for the evils of the new millennium is the evils of the previous millennium.

His chemistry with his on-screen daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), makes their shared scenes — especially their failed reunion early in the film — the high points of the film. Mulligan is strong throughout the film, though one wonders why Stone chose to make her the complete opposite of her father. As a blogger for a liberal news site and hybrid car owner, she seems to disavow all of her father’s edginess. She exists, in a way, as proof of a hidden softness in her father, but she still seems far too pure to be a Gekko.

On the other hand, Josh Brolin’s Bretton James is evil incarnate and endlessly watchable. As one might expect from the actor who has brought real-life villains such as Dan White (Harvey Milk’s assassin) and George W. Bush to the screen, Brolin captures the essence of the investment bankers at the heart of the financial crisis. Indeed, Brolin’s James is stone-cold and larger-than-life, like the prominently-featured architecture of Lower Manhattan.

Manhattan plays as great a role in the film as any of the characters. It sparkles and shines, and Stone and Prieto capture all of the grandeur and menace of New York in a way I have yet to see in film. Many films have lovingly embraced New York’s iconic buildings, but none have presented them so majestically.

Finally, there is the financial meltdown itself. Stone’s treatment of the crisis is just what an audience would expect from a film-maker with a reputation for having more passion than thoughtfulness. A number of scenes, including one in which Gekko lectures an audience at a business school on the “real reasons” behind the recession, are didactic and disorienting. These are moments in the script when Stone pushes past the characters to chastise his audience, which I, personally, could live without. After all, if I’m going to argue with a movie, I’d like it to be with a movie that will actually listen to my side of the story.

But these are minor issues at the end of the day. “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” mines the relationship between the “greed is good” of the 1980s and the “greed is legal” of the 2000s. Even if this film doesn’t have all the answers, the questions it poses are compelling and thoroughly watchable.

Rating: 4 out of 5