Never let it be said that Oliver Stone doesn’t take advantage of a newsy opportunity. His last two films, World Trade Center and W, re-imagined recent events from American political history—the first as sentimental humanist drama, the second (more effectively, for this viewer) as satire. For Stone to have left the financial crisis of 2008 cinematically unplumbed would be like Gordon Gekko neglecting to exploit an insider tip on a failing company. So, with the uncynical opportunism and merry lack of subtlety that’s his wont, Stone has brought Gekko, the greed-extolling villain of his 1987 smash hit Wall Street, back to life.
Twenty-five years into his directorial career, audiences know that we don’t go to Oliver Stone for nuance. We go to him for big, brash, sweeping morality tales and firebrand conspiracy theories, for entertainment and catharsis. And for all of the weaknesses of Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps(20th Century Fox) as a stand-alone movie—it’s narratively overstuffed, clumsily paced, and ultimately unsure of how to present the charming moral monster at its center—the movie provides entertainment and catharsis in lavish dollops.
Though its dialogue and storytelling are often conventional, this movie never creaks. It snaps, beginning with a buoyant opening title sequence that superimposes the zigzagging graph of a fluctuating market onto the skyline of New York City. In a prologue, we see Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas—has the parenthetical identification of an actor ever been more unnecessary?) being released from jail in 2001 after serving an eight-year term for insider trading and other misdeeds. He retrieves his property—an empty gold money clip, a comically outdated cell phone—and heads out into the world, broke and alone.
Flash-forward to 2008, with Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) in the Charlie Sheen role of a brash, young stock trader. Unlike Sheen’s character, the struggling schmo Bud Fox, Jacob lives high on the hog from the beginning, sharing a palatial penthouse with his girlfriend, the left-leaning blogger Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who also happens to be Gekko’s estranged daughter. Out of concern for the audience’s 21st-century sensibilities, Jacob is also given a cause: He wants to master the stock market, not merely for the purposes of snorting cocaine and shacking up with Daryl Hannah, but in order to fund a company that’s developing a revolutionary clean-energy technology.
Gekko effectuates his comeback by writing a book, Is Greed Good?, that appears to be at least in part a renunciation of his Reagan-era philosophy of rapaciousness. At a lecture and book signing, Jacob introduces himself to Gekko as his daughter’s intended, and the two of them enter into an underhanded arrangement: In exchange for market tips from Gekko, Jacob will try to intercede on his behalf for reconciliation with Winnie. (The scene in which they negotiate this agreement is one of the movie’s best, with Douglas taking his old unctuous malice out for a spin and LaBeouf rising to the occasion with believably conflicted loyalties.)
Jostling for space with this family drama is a plotline that, for the sake of moral clarity and dramatic expedience, compresses the entire financial crisis of fall 2008 into a standoff between two investment banks: Keller Zabel, directed by Jacob’s mentor Lou Zabel (a magisterial Frank Langella), and Churchill Schwarz, an equally troubled but less honestly run bank under the command of Bretton James (Josh Brolin). Gekko knows James from way back, having competed with him for the spoils of corporate raids in the ‘80s. As Lou proudly refuses to sell out the firm he spent a lifetime building for pennies on the dollar, Gekko warns Jacob that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.
Throughout the film, the frame pops with split-screen effects, iris-outs, graphs and charts and visual doodads. This style can seem gimmicky, but it’s suited to the story. In the 21st century, cable-TV screens and stock tickers have entered into our cultural bloodstream in a way they hadn’t in 1987, and the movie’s visual hypermania illustrates that. New York looks lush and delectable, especially in a gala ball sequence at the Metropolitan Museum that skewers consumer excess while reveling in its sparkle. Stone could be blamed for overlooking the real victims of the crisis—we never see a homeowner evicted from an overleveraged house, though Susan Sarandon gets a fun walk-on as a real-estate agent in way over her head. But I appreciated that Stone spared us a sanctimonious social-realist subplot about the “little people.” The first Wall Street was an almost Shakespearean fable about kingly succession, and this one carries on that tradition.
The movie’s punch-drunk energy can’t quite make up for what, without giving away any plot points, I can only describe as a third-act lapse into maudlin sentimentality. By the film’s last frame, Gordon Gekko has gone from evil to sympathetic to ambiguous so many times that we no longer trust any twist involving him. But thanks in no small part to Michael Douglas’ evident joy in playing the role, Gekko has now become one of those characters, like The Big Lebowski’s Dude, who no longer needs a movie to sustain him. Oliver Stone’s account of the events of 2008 is as unsubtle in its charms as Gordon Gekko himself. But like Gekko, the film also feels urgent and strangely necessary.