But greed is not the antagonist in “Money Never Sleeps.” Debt is. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released from prison after an eight-year stretch for insider trading only to discover that his money now torments him in its very absence. Picking up in 2008, the entire cast of affluent characters in the film is haunted by the global economic crisis and even more intimate money matters.
Shia LaBeouf plays Jake Moore, a trader who invests his million-dollar bonus the night before the market collapses, just after buying an extravagant wedding ring to propose to his girlfriend, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan). After Moore gets the opportunity to speak with his new father-in-law, the two begin a series of unorthodox transactions; Gordon wants an opportunity to get closer to his estranged daughter, which Jake orchestrates in exchange for the opportunity to further his career.
In that way, “Money Never Sleeps” follows a similar template to the original, with Gekko acting as protégé to a young, cutthroat trader. The sequel, however, has a more ambitious, branching story and what feels like a much larger cast. It suffers somewhat for its sprawling narrative, but the film is grounded by a strong emotional center. “Wall Street” is still the more rousing film, but “Money Never Sleeps,” is appropriately more dour, downbeat and moody; the films are alike only in their committed reflection of their respective economic climates.
Both “Wall Street” films seem to find Oliver Stone at his most experimental. His multimedia gimmickry doesn’t always work, but he never seems to be at a loss for a new way to present information. “Money Never Sleeps” paints the stock market index across the New York skyline, fractures into split-screens, and cedes itself entirely to illustrated figures that would seem more at home in a documentary. Stone can sometimes be a frustratingly predictable director, and small flourishes like these are what make the “Wall Streets” stand out in his filmography.
But viewer beware, for all its stylishness, “Money Never Sleeps” will bore many. It is an uncompromisingly slow film, especially in its drooping middle—devotees of the fast-paced original will be particularly let down. But while the clock-check quotient is relatively high in places, I believe it ultimately reaches a satisfying payoff.
After all, what makes these films tick is their characters, and this sequel is no slouch. They make not be as vibrant or distinct as the people who populated the 1987 film, but again, they have to support a modern disillusionment with the market that didn’t exist back then. The characters in Stone’s original are eccentric, quirky, domineering, and vivacious. The characters in “Money Never Sleeps” are sullen, worn, and scared.
And then there’s Gekko. It’s interesting that Douglas’ portrayal of him is the most enduring part of the original film; but then it’s obvious when you see him as that character. He is capitalism, a physical manifestation of it. Douglas owns the performance, and though Gekko has been beaten into a shell of his former self in “Money Never Sleeps,” he’s still plain fun to watch. The charisma is there, and Douglas supplements a terrific irony to the character in playing him broke. “Bet you don’t have one of these,” he boasts to Moore during their first encounter, flashing his NYC MetroCard.
“Money Never Sleeps,” for better or for worse, is the “Wall Street” our generation gets. It’s a time capsule from 2010, an imperfect but equally relevant window into our languishing economy. In twenty years, we can only hope it all looks like science fiction.