Review: ‘Wall Street’ is less ‘Money Never Sleeps’ and more ‘Movie Never Ends’ Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps pretty much embodies the struggle that franchises face when they wait a significant amount of time, much less 23 years, between installments: Should a sequel, spinoff or follow-up simply continue the story it started in the first film, or does it need to spice up those original formulas or introduce new characters in order to keep it relevant, much less interesting, for its new audience?

The truth is that current events more than provided Oliver Stone with a familiar and yet fertile backdrop for a new story about America’s greed. But the director, having long since lost the fire that fueled his creativity, has created what can only be described as a crass cash-in on a once compelling saga – the sort of attention-grabber that generates commerce but few real conversations – which is why Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a missed opportunity at best.

Michael Douglas reprises his Oscar-winning turn as Gordon Gekko, a Wall Street bigwig who spent eight years in prison, was released in 2001, and devoted the next seven to rebuilding his fortune by writing his memoirs. His daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan)  blames his cutthroat salesmanship for the death of her brother, and refuses contact with him, but she nevertheless is involved with an investment shark herself: Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a young, idealistic trader who devotes most of his waking hours to pitching alternative energy futures. But after his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) becomes a victim of their firm’s disgrace and dissolution, Jake swears revenge on the man whom he holds responsible, competitor Bretton James (Josh Brolin), and tracks down Gordon to enlist his help.

Gordon agrees on the condition that Jake facilitate a meeting between himself and Winnie, and the two men soon fall into a high-stakes game of maneuvering and subterfuge. But before long, Jake realizes that he is out of his depth, and further, that his hunger for vengeance may not be enough to make a meal out of James – especially after he begins to think that Gordon may be manipulating him for reasons other than a family reconciliation.

Everything I just wrote sounds interesting to me – something I know I would enjoy watching. But sadly, Stone’s penchant for on-the-nose observations, and especially these days, dryly expository indictments of whatever subject he happens to be examining, makes the whole film feel like a fairly bloodless affair. The problem isn’t merely that the movie is too long, and too filled with speeches about how Wall Street screwed main street out of its last red cent; it’s that Stone can’t decide whether he wants it to be about the aging lions like Gekko who stick around long after they already received their so-called comeuppances, or about this generation’s young turks, like Jake, who operate on a scale far bigger and more dangerous than Gordon ever did.

Although the first scene of the film shows Gekko as he’s being released from prison, he disappears for almost 30 minutes thereafter – which would be fine if the character was meant to be a spectre of sorts to the main story, or perhaps a cautionary tale that hovers over Jake’s plot to get revenge. But about an hour into the film, Gekko sort of takes it over, and the last 30 minutes are devoted almost entirely to his future as a trader in a world where he no longer needs secret names and under-the-table deals to deliver his financial death blows. Do we need to see him rebuild himself? I suppose there’s a love-to-hate-him aspect of Gekko that makes him interesting viewing, but it’s hard to see how that translates to him needing to end up successful in pretty much any way by the end of the film. And moreover, it feels like a betrayal since the point of the entire story is that these fat cats screwed most of America out of money they earned, and walked away scot-free.

At the same time, LaBeouf is clearly meant to be another generation of the same sort of person, and to include him as his successor and Winnie’s boyfriend – even at the expense of plausibility given that Winnie hates virtually everything her father stands for – is a shrewd decision, both creatively and commercially. Especially since LaBeouf’s instincts as an actor are only getting sharper with every role he inhabits, and he more than holds his own with heavyweights like Douglas, Langella and Brolin. But if he’s the focus of the movie at the beginning, he should be its focus at the end, and while I won’t spoil the final scenes of the film, I have literally no idea how the filmmakers mean for us to feel about him, him and Winnie, him and Gordon, Winnie and Gordon, and all three of them together. There’s a difference between storytelling ambiguity and uncertainty, and this is uncertainty.

I suppose that the film’s financial lessons are occasionally enlightening and interesting, but they seem better-suited for a documentary by Stone about the 2009 bailout, or would have been better-served in a movie that more effectively merged all of these tectonic shifts with character development that the filmmakers cared equally about. But unlike the director’s earlier films, Stone no longer starts with characters and shrouds them in issues of cultural significance, but has acquiesced to being a director who conceals his primary interest in issues with thinly-veiled stories and characters that are ciphers for, again, expository revelations or political screeds.

But the biggest problem with the film in the end is that it’s just too damn long. It’s like a sweater that’s been pulled at from the top and bottom – it’s so spread out that you can’t see anything any more but the holes, even if you really wanted to admire the design. Ultimately, I still feel like Stone’s are “event” movies, and I admire and enjoy his ambition, even if it’s no longer realized as satisfyingly as it once was. But if there’s a real message to be taken away from Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, it’s to never make an investment in something unless you’ve got all of the right angles covered. This film doesn’t, and that’s why it feels like it pays off so superficially.

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