At the start of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the once-fearsome tycoon Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released from prison after serving an eight-year sentence for insider trading and other illegal corporate maneuverings. His massive fortune has been reduced to a state-issued check for $1,800. His belongings consist of a wristwatch and an amusingly large, obsolete cellphone. When he walks outside the gates, no one waits to pick him up. The man who became an iconic anti-hero for the give-me-more 1980s in Wall Street is now a penniless nobody - a fallen titan.
Fallen, perhaps, but not broken, as he'll prove seven years later in 2008, when a storm of pain in the form of a crippling recession begins to rain down on the banking and investment industry. The hotshot young trader Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) is making a name for himself in Wall Street corridors. He's also in a serious relationship with Winnie (Carey Mulligan), Gekko's estranged daughter, who despises her father so much she bristles at the mention of his name.
Jacob's boss and mentor, investment banker Louis (Frank Langella), is generous and fatherly to his disciple. But Louis loses his nerve and permanently checks out of the game after a corporate rival (a snaky Josh Brolin) manipulates the market against him and ruins his company.
Shaken and confused, Jacob seeks out the advice of Gordon, who has apparently reformed and written a bestselling book about the perils of greed. But does Gordon really believe the philosophy he's spouting? Has this cagey old leopard really managed to change his spots?
Much like its clunky subtitle, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps feels somewhat superfluous - a sequel born of a creative whim that director Oliver Stone decided to turn into film. The movie, elegantly shot by Rodrigo Prieto, is sleek and brisk, using split-screens and graphics to help uninformed viewers grasp the basics of the corporate shenanigans the characters pull on each other. The film also offers a luxurious plunge into the world of the rich and privileged, where a million dollars is tantamount to pocket change and priceless paintings are hung on walls to match the room's decor.
But unlike Wall Street, in which watching Gekko take over and then dismantle an airline for profit was engrossing and informative, the sequel's financial plotline is just a generic gloss over the economic crisis - a compendium of scenes involving boardroom meetings and shady phone calls. What does work well in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which has a surprisingly bouncy and effervescent tone considering its subject matter, are the characters. Douglas, who remains off-screen for surprisingly large chunks, plays Gekko close to the vest: As with the other people in the film, we're not quite sure if we should trust him. "When I was away, it seems like greed got greedier, with a little bit of envy mixed in,'' he says with just the right touch of ambivalence. Is he being critical of that envy, or is he feeling some himself?
LaBeouf, the film's true protagonist, continues to prove he's a natural movie star, more than holding his own against Douglas and making palpable Jacob's angst and growing suspicion that he might be making a terrible mistake. In a small role as his mother, Susan Sarandon embodies the spirit of real-estate investors who thought they could get rich quick by flipping properties - until the market crashed, taking their dreams with it.
There are several amusing cameos (including a great, unexpected one, and a highly distracting, recurring one by Stone), plus a third-act twist that briefly recalls the savage, take-no-prisoners edge of the original film. But Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is ultimately a gentler, more sentimental and conventional movie - the undeniably polished and professional work of a once-iconoclastic filmmaker who appears to be mellowing with age. I liked him better when he was ruthless.
Cast: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, Frank Langella, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon.
Director: Oliver Stone.
Screenwriters: Allan Loeb, Stephen Schiff.
Producers: Edward R. Pressman, Eric Kopeloff.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 132 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Opens Friday Sept. 24 at area theaters.