Like its predecessor, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a melodrama, a contemporary morality play filled with big characters, corny dialogue, and commentary on recent events. But in the end, I was reminded of a classic Jack Benny routine. A robber points a gun at Benny and says, "Your money or your life." Long pause. "Well?" the robber demands. Benny replies, "I'm thinking."
Reptilian corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is this film's version of Benny. But his dilemma is no joke. He gets out of prison after serving a sentence for insider trading—his returned goods include a cellular phone the size of a combat boot—and hopes to re-enter both the financial world and the life of his daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). As it turns out, the two wishes are intertwined. The younger Gekko is sitting on a huge Swiss savings account that's supposed to stake the raider's future business endeavors, but she's cut him off following the suicide of her brother, Gordon's only son—a tragedy she blames on Gekko's horrible fathering. Winnie’s lover, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf)—the film's eager beaver hero—doesn’t know about the stash when he first hooks up with the now-allegedly-reformed Gordon, who’s repositioning himself as a voice of wisdom and hawking a book about the evils of unfettered capitalism. Jake latches onto him after a book reading and starts to see him as a possible mentor, or at least an ally, and he desperately needs one. His firm has been destroyed and absorbed by a rival bank led by a frightening character named Bretton James (Josh Brolin, George W. Bush in Stone’s W), who’s like an icy, technocratic, next-generation version of Gordon. But the film really comes down to those three players and that stash. Each of their pure desires—Winnie’s wish to define herself apart from her father’s reputation; Jake’s wish to spend the rest of his life with Winnie and get rich without hurting anyone; Gordon’s wish to get back into Winnie’s good graces—are all complicated, contaminated really, by that Swiss account.
In fact, the movie’s central theme can be boiled down to three words: Money poisons everything. It’s the mirror image of the most quotable phrase in the first Wall Street: Greed is good. And fittingly, the film’s tone, pace, and preoccupations are all very different from the ones Stone gave us in Wall Street. In that film Bud Fox was—rather like Sheen's character in Platoon—an edgy male ingenue torn between father figures, and for all its moralizing, the first Wall Street ultimately came down to the deals. It was a gangster thriller substituting ticker-tape scrawls for massacres, with Gekko lording over everything like a bouncy, wiseass mob boss, Sonny Corleone in Armani. Tripped up by the very thing that made it a hit—its crowd-pleasing energy—the movie glorified what it set out to expose, and turned “Greed is good” from an ironic lament into a rallying cry. Wall Street’s alchemical transformation from cautionary tale into quotable blockbuster evokes a famous quote by Francois Truffaut that that also applied to Platoon: There’s no such thing as an antiwar movie because war is among the most beautiful of cinematic spectacles, and when you put it onscreen, it’s exciting.
No such charge could be levied against the sequel. Money Never Sleeps is less a financial thriller than a domestic drama that happens to take place in and around America’s financial capital. Jake is a more complicated character than Bud Fox—not a greedy blank slate looking to get rich fast, but a young liberal capitalist trying to reconcile profit and social good. His “good” father figure, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), plucked him from obscurity as a caddy, got him a job at the now-crippled firm, and taught him that morality should not be divorced from business, and Jake never forgot that lesson (although he allows it to recede from time to time). He sees through Bretton from the start, but lets himself get pulled into his orbit because he mistakenly thinks he can use Bretton without getting used himself—a more nuanced (and less crudely exciting) situation than Gekko’s seduction of the credulous Bud Fox in Wall Street. The real struggle in Money Never Sleeps isn’t between rival forces jockeying to control a hero’s soul, or between rival investors or companies angling for the fattest payday. It’s a contest between the lure of the deal and the importance of everything else—the private, personal issues that get neglected or destroyed in the rush to make money.
In a perverse but amusing way, Money Never Sleeps sometimes seems like film noir for CNBC junkies. It’s filled with characters that express a wish to be straight, or go straight, or do some good in the world, and many of them actually mean it. But they keep getting seduced from the straight and narrow. The femme fatale is money.
This is, to put it mildly, not the direction one might have expected Stone to go in, and it may prove a liability at the box-office, especially when fans of the original start spreading the news that Money Never Sleeps isn't an exciting movie and really isn’t trying to be. Whenever the movie starts to get hopped up on the adrenaline rush of deal-making, Stone cuts to a human-scaled conversation between two people about mundane personal matters. Even the most purely (and gratuitously) cinematic scene in the entire film, Jake and Bretton racing bikes through winding woodland roads, ends sooner than you expect, and leads into Jake’s stinging condemnation of everything Bretton stands for. The structure of Alan Loeb and Stephen Schiff's screenplay is as much a comment on the culture of moneymaking and what it does to people as any single line of dialogue.
Stone still knows how to make abstract notions concrete and visually exciting; I was especially fond of his use of multiple split-screens that segment the frame into a mosaic of little windows, computer-style (an more extreme version of a device he used in the first movie). More striking still are the transitions within and between scenes, which superimpose one face over another during a phone call, or shift from one location to another by having the first location disintegrate into glimmering pixels (suggesting that the "real" world has become a mere extension of what's happening 24/7 online). That’s as corny a visual idea as an editorializing matte shot in a silent film that encloses two lovers inside a heart. But the Wall Street movies are primitivist entertainments—the first movie ended with the words “The End,” for God’s sake—so the flourishes are all of a piece. Stone isn’t a dramatic pointillist: he paints with a siding brush.
Money Never Sleeps won't win any prizes for perfection, or even neatness. It has a lurching rhythm and often seems a bit ashamed of itself whenever it gets too excited over a deal or a bit of masculine one-upsmanship (a tendency that sits rather uneasily with all the images of men shouting up a storm in offices and on trading floors). LaBeouf, like Sheen before him, is watchable and likable but never more than that. The beguiling Mulligan is stuck in a largely reactive role and doesn’t begin to flower until the film’s second half. And it offers three, maybe four endings when one would have sufficed.
Yet Money Never Sleeps is still an engrossing and unusual movie. Parts of it are surprisingly powerful, and the overarching message—that the pursuit of an abstraction, money, has divorced America from the human struggles it should tend to everyday—is urgent and necessary, and conveyed with honesty. Its most powerful scene has nothing to do with takeovers, hedge funds, or cable news reports: It's a conversation between Winnie and Gordon on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exquisitely acted by Mulligan and Douglas. Gordon is begging his daughter to forgive him, and she's having none of it. Gordon Gekko's eyes fill with tears. He can barely finish a sentence. He’s so abject and miserable that it’s hard to look at him. The onetime Master of the Universe has been rendered helpless not by a subpoena or a jail sentence, but by the knowledge of what he lost and may never get back.