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Movie Review

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Michael Douglas is in top form as he reprises the slippery Gordon Gekko

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 24, 2010

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"Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’’ finds Oliver Stone in an ebullient, I-told-you-so mood. Set just before and after the 2008 financial meltdown, the new movie is an enjoyably frisky mess, with the camera dashing into boardrooms and bedrooms, and characters coming at each other from all sides. The film’s lack of focus is almost criminal, but schadenfreude energizes Stone. Everyone here is dancing on a bubble, and no one has the guts to admit the bubble is about to pop.

Does the director really have to illustrate that with a scene of schoolchildren blowing actual bubbles into the Central Park sky? Of course he does; otherwise he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone. After a decade-plus of contentiously received documentaries (“Comandante’’), box office bombs (“Alexander’’), and retread Stone-isms (“W.’’), the sequel to 1987’s “Wall Street’’ lets the director tap into the filmmaking brio, if not the social indignation, of his younger self.

The most telling difference this time is that Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko is no longer a villain as slimy as his namesake but a grand old alter ego — the devil at twilight. “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’’ is supposedly the story of one Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), an ambitious young trader who sets out to avenge his mentor (Frank Langella) and ends up playing the big boys for his soul. Whatever; Douglas steals every scene he’s in.

Released from prison early in the film — no one’s there to greet him; the waiting limo is for a gangbanger — Gekko haunts the edges of the movie and slowly, smilingly burrows inward until, once again, it’s all about him. To bide his time, he writes a tell-all book and gives seminars that ask “Is Greed Good?,’’ as if he ever doubted the answer.

If Gekko is the jester on the sidelines, cackling as he predicts imminent financial collapse, Jake is in there pitching as fast as he can. His pet company is a high-tech fusion start-up manned by sweet old Austin Pendleton, but when the film opens, Jake’s investment firm — a frank stand-in for Bear Stearns — is going under. Langella plays Lew Zabel, the head of Keller-Zabel, as tough and avuncular rather than frosty and patrician; he’s a street fighter who has gotten slow, and he’s something to see as he rages at ice-cold rival Bretton James (Josh Brolin) of Churchill Schwartz (a.k.a. JPMorgan and/or Goldman Sachs). The scene is a boardroom at the Fed but the vibe is Shakespearean, complete with Eli Wallach — now officially older than God — stirring the caldron in the corner.

“Wall Street’’ plays roman à clef with the players and companies of the 2008 subprime lending crisis, and Stone’s too busy racing around to hand you a scorecard. The movie’s biggest liability is the financial doubletalk that comes off the screen in great, loopy waves; if you try to make sense of it, rather than listen to it like jazz, you’ll miss the point. The point is that everyone was listening to it like jazz.

The movie’s second biggest liability is that its hero is a skunk. Jake is engaged to Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), a political writer for a small lefty blog; her character is meant to represent all the decent people out there that Stone isn’t terribly interested in this time around. It’s never clear what these two are doing together, since Jake spends most of his time courting her father, enlisting the exile’s advice for his showdown with Bretton James. There are small deceptions that build to bigger lies and then a whopper of a betrayal, and LaBeouf doesn’t have the charm to keep us in his corner for the long haul. He holds the screen, but he doesn’t do enough with it.

So Stone keeps the edges of “Money Never Sleeps’’ humming to take your mind off the hole at its middle. Mulligan is impossible to not adore, even if her character’s a drip; Susan Sarandon goes amusingly Lawn Guyland as Jake’s mom, a former nurse now desperately overleveraged in the housing market; Gekko goes to a fund-raiser and up pops Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), the young, idealistic hero of “Wall Street’’ gone fat and complacent. No one’s innocent anymore.

Douglas, though, is the film’s ace in the hole. At this stage in his career, the actor’s a silkier, more seductive version of his father, Kirk; he buries the teeth-gritting Douglas intensity behind charm but it’s there. Gekko is this film’s Savonarola, preaching against the mendacity of the new millennial fat cats — “the mother of all evils is speculation’’ — but what really gets his goat isn’t their greed. Greed is good, remember? Stupid greed, the kind that infected the lowliest investor and the US government alike, is just pathetic. In “Money Never Sleeps,’’ Gekko and his creator have a good, hard laugh at all our expenses.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

WALL STREET: Money Never Sleeps Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Stone, Allan Loeb, Stephen Schiff, and Stanley Weiser

Starring: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 133 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (brief strong language, thematic elements)

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