In 1987, Oliver Stone released “Wall Street,” intended as a critique of ’80s excess. This theme was embodied by the central character, a slimy corporate raider named Gordon Gekko, played to Oscar-winning perfection by Michael Douglas. Sadly, Stone’s film was an ideological failure — MBA students everywhere have since taken Gekko’s mantra, “greed is good,” to heart. Twenty-three years later, with the economy recovering from recession, Stone returns with a perfectly timed sequel. But even with Douglas reprising a role that still defines his career, this new effort is another letdown, sensationalistic and empty.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”

At Quality 16 and Rave
20th Century Fox

Set during the months preceding the meltdown, the film follows Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf, “Eagle Eye”), a trader at investment firm Keller Zabel (KZI). He has it all — wealth, stability and a beautiful girlfriend, Winnie (Carey Mulligan, “An Education”). But when Bretton James (Josh Brolin, “W.”), spreads rumors that bankrupt KZI and drive its founder and Jake’s father figure, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella, “Frost/Nixon”), to suicide, Jake swears vengeance. This is where Gekko steps in. He’s Winnie’s estranged father, who’s more than willing to show his future son-in-law the ins and outs of corporate greed. Ignoring Winnie’s protests, Jake follows Gekko into the abyss.

LaBeouf is convincing as the idealistic protégé, a man-child who truly believes his support for a fusion energy company will change the world. What’s unclear is why such an idealist would associate with Gekko, who, fresh out of prison, is a sad shell of his former self. Douglas gives some electrifying speeches full of fear-mongering buzzwords, criticizing America’s financial system as a “bankrupt business” with “systemic, malignant” problems. He owns every minute of his screen time, but as soon as he leaves, we realize that his statements are meaningless.

That’s the film’s most damaging flaw: the fact that Stone and his screenwriters, Allan Loeb (“The Switch”) and Stephen Schiff (“True Crime”), have nothing to express beyond jealous, heavy-handed condemnation of a system they don’t understand. Stone’s camera dwells upon fat cats in tailored suits and their trophy wives wearing extravagant jewelry. Hazy camerawork alludes to the temporary nature of their wealth. Traders discuss bubbles in housing and technology in Central Park as children’s soap bubbles pop around them.

What was wrong with the system? How do we fix it? Those are hard questions. It’s easier to settle for the overused non-answer that America’s finance sector produces nothing and contributes nothing to society. Zabel and James attend meetings at the U.S. Treasury, complete with Timothy Geithner look-alikes who are shocked at the bailouts and decry the socialism they’re about to authorize. Jake criticizes his mother’s (Susan Sarandon, “The Lovely Bones”) attempts at selling real estate by telling her that her job doesn’t “make a difference.” It’s all very holier-than-thou, but it offers no answers.

Instead, we get awkwardly placed melodrama, as Gekko attempts to reconnect with Winnie. There’s a sob story about Winnie’s brother, who overdosed while Gekko was in prison, and another about Gekko’s attempts at preventing his son’s death while imprisoned. By film’s end, all this sap oozes to the forefront. Has Gekko really redeemed himself? Is Winnie ready to let him back into her life? Is anyone awake enough to care? As the movie’s final act tries to ham-handedly shift focus, we realize that this is a movie we should have short-sold.

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