As the viewer returns to the world of Wall Street in this surprise sequel, it's 2008, and the American financial future looks bleak to Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). "At least he had the balls to commit suicide," he says to Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), when Moore asks about his late boss. It's been over a decade since Gordon was arrested for insider trading, and he's back on the streets with a new book and a new outlook on big business. Gordon and Jacob's interest in each other is simple: Jacob is right in the middle of one of the worst financial crisises in the country's history and could use Gordon's advice, and Jacob is also engaged to Gordon's daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan).
With Gordon's help, Jacob traces word-of-mouth that ultimately led to his bank's collapse and his mentor's suicide back to Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a silver-tongued billionaire who offers Jacob a job when confronted with the charges. In exchange, Jacob works to reconcile Gordon and Winnie, who haven't spoken since Winnie's brother committed suicide, during Gordon's imprisonment. The two share a heartfelt, emotional scene on the steps outside a fancy charity banquet, but the question nags: does Gordon Gekko really have a soul?
23 years after the original Wall Street, Douglas has still got it. His cool, collected gift of gab never wavers, tossing out short, succinct statements about the way it all works that will unnerve the steeliest listener. Even if Gordon is not an endearing, personable human being, he still gains more trust in ten minutes than some people could muster up during a lifetime of encounters. Jacob is slightly in awe of Gordon's powers of persuasion, but tries his best to keep one eye open, for Winnie's sake. "I never knew my father as a peaceful person," she tells him. Gordon's current pitch seems safe enough: forget about the allure of money, and focus on the real. "Money is the bitch that never sleeps; one day you'll wake up, and she'll be gone."
As Moore, LaBeouf does an admirable job of shedding his usual "acting tics" and playing the character as straightforward as possible. He's never showy or overly charismatic, remaining low-key but forceful in Douglas' larger-than-life presence. Still, he's overshadowed by Brolin as well, who gives a blisteringly evil performance. Every word that falls out of his mouth feels like it's coated in his own sense of class and sophistication, and he seems every bit as threatening as Gordon, if a bit more anxious with his trigger finger.
Stone's original film struck me as a traditional "rise and fall" story about a guy getting undone by a lethal mixture of arrogance and naivete, but Money Never Sleeps is about "the game", as Gordon calls it, "the interaction between people." It's a dialogue-thick film of people making decisions, juggling motives and options, and the politics of their actions. Stone illustrates the power of ideas, this time in a half-slick, half-awkward montage where people send painfully fake IMs to one another, and giant red and green tickers fly around like spaceships. This and heaps of "no duh" bubble imagery are very on-the-nose, but Stone seems otherwise invigorated by his cast and the potential to explore actual history, like the bailout, in the context of Gekko, Bretton, and Jacob (Stone even appears on-screen, in a brief, silly little cameo).
It's all pretty impressive until the last 15 minutes, when Stone and screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff suddenly stop playing hardball. Maybe they felt audiences needed relief from the real world, but it's a painfully stupid cop-out, and when one adds in Stone's occasional directorial stumble, as well as a few other lackluster odds and ends, Money Never Sleeps ends up distractingly imperfect. Ultimately, I'd say the film is worth a look, thanks mostly to Brolin and the clever intertwining of real life and fiction, but by the time the credits are rolling, don't be surprised if you find yourself picturing Gordon in the theater, smoking his cigar and chuckling cynically to himself at the fairy tale on screen.