*Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
It's adorable and terrifying to look at Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and see the ultimate '80s icon of sharky, sociopathic greed, Gordon Gekko, reduced to an object of quaint amusement. Is this the guy who inspired such widespread hand-wringing, such pop-culture agita back in the day? How wonderfully naïve we were about how much damage the money-changers could do to us.
Gekko is back in Oliver Stone's follow-up to 1987's Wall Street, but just barely. It's 2008, and he's been out of prison for seven years, living relatively modestly on the sales of his book, Is Greed Good? He talks to university students, tells 'em flat out things such as, "The mother of all evil is speculation," and that credit default swaps are the real weapons of mass destruction.
Gordon Gekko today is, God help us, a voice of reason. And Michael Douglas slips so smoothly back into the role that even we, who know him for a villain, cannot help but be charmed as we're put on our guard.
Gekko is still the bad guy, but he simply cannot hope to measure up against the villainy of the financial criminals running Wall Street in 2008. If JFK was Stone's paean to the conspiracy theories surrounding a presidential assassination, then Money Never Sleeps is his sickening portrait of conspiracy fact — gussied up as fiction — about the billionaires who see $120 million as "not a great deal of money" and collude to maintain the financial circle jerk that props them all up.
This is, in some aspects, a much more cynical flick than the first one. The Twin Towers that dominated the skyline of Lower Manhattan in Wall Street are pointedly absent here; the aggression of the '80s has laid waste to a metaphoric landscape and morphed into a norm that barely stands out anymore. Even the few spots of idealism feel oddly muted and contradicted.
Our putative hero, hotshot trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) — who is engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan) — has a pet project he's been pushing to anyone who will listen: a green-energy experimental fusion power plant that needs an infusion of $100 million to keep operating. But unlike his 1987 counterpart, Charlie Sheen's Bud Fox, who propped up a failing airline and saved working-class employees (including his own father) from layoffs, Jake is a true dreamer in a realm that has no use for dreamers. It's as if the film is suggesting that idealism is an even tougher attitude to maintain today than it was in 1987, and it looked pretty damn hard at the time.
The film's only major problem stems from the last few minutes clashing rather jarringly with all that has come before. But it's a forgivable failure, as everything prior was so dynamically told by a master of visual storytelling. The opening sequence presents modern-day New York as a lively, energetic place without resorting of any of the usual clichés, and Stone's witty eye makes sharp points wherever he turns it, such as when he focuses on the diamonds dripping from the women at a Wall Street charity function.
This is an enormously entertaining film, and a rather scary one, too. For if Gordon Gekko was a warning back in 1987, should we take his reappearance as a new foreshadowing of financial doom still to come?