How do you make a sequel to the strutting, chest-beating capitalism thrill ride of Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street in post-bailout America? Very carefully. In keeping with our more humbled, cautionary times, the operative word in the Gordon Gekko sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is repent, repent, repent. The human race, Stone’s sequel suggests, has taken a step backwards as of late, its evolutionary tendencies morphing into destructive ones as we lose sight of the important (i.e. non-monetary) things in life.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opens with Gekko, sprung from the big house, as he’s handed his walking papers and an ’80s-era cell phone the size of a French baguette. “One gold money clip with no money in it,” the guard intones as Gekko watches families in waiting limos embracing their newly sprung kin. Meanwhile, he skulks back to Manhattan alone.
While the former master of the universe works to get his mojo back, Wall Street circa 2008 is on the precipice of a meltdown. The coming storm is watched over by idealistic young trader Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a self-made man and Fordham grad who started his slow climb up the financial ladder as investment bank head Lewis Zabel’s (Frank Langella) caddie. Jacob is engaged to leftie blogger and Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), who wants nothing to do with daddy’s dirty money. While Winnie is using her Huffington Post-style blog to slay corporate baddies, Jacob is directing Wall Street money to a green energy project. With Gekko representing (albeit chastened) greed and Jacob and Winnie representing MoveOn.org idealism, Stone isn’t exactly subtle in setting up the central battle between old money dinosaurs and this new generation of dreamers.
As spun by writers Stephen Schiff and Allan Loeb, Wall Street seems like the right statement for a newly thrifty, risk-shy populace. It’s the kind of moral universe where Zabel cautions Jacob to take the million dollar bonus he’s just given him and spend it right. In other words, not on nose candy and Russian supermodels. “Have kids and spend time with them while they’re young,” says Zabel, cueing the tragic undertone of the film. But it’s not just traders, Stone’s hindsight warns, who play the market like their own personal roulette wheel and get their hand slapped back from the cookie jar — Wall Street spreads the blame far and wide. Jacob’s flashy, real-estate speculating mother Sylvia (Susan Sarandon), who is in debt up to her Botoxed forehead, is one of the “regular people” gently reprimanded by Stone for living too high on the hog and preferring status to sobriety. In a previous, more dignified life, Sylvia was a nurse; Stone’s film pines for an era of firemen, nurses, doctors, teachers, and other iconic self-sacrificers, before me-me-me fast money held all of America under its sway.
This is not to say that all of the finger-wagging about how money has replaced the more essential commodities, like family, has made Wall Street thrill-less. Stone still gets a boner over the sight of a testosterone-juiced Jacob and villain Bretton James (Josh Brolin) geared up for urban warrior battle (racing expensive motorcycles through the curving woods of upstate New York) or the Batman-esque gadgets Jacob and his colleagues employ during a typical business day. In this jacked-up world of big money, male hormones waft through the air like Old Spice. Even the female traders look like they put on vampire incisors along with their Bulgari and Jil Sander each morning, chomping out Fight Club phrases like “eat me more” in order to hold their own with the boys on the trading floor. Sometimes the high-life eye candy can veer into the absurd, as when Stone delivers a Pretty Woman-style fashion montage as the newly cash-flush Gekko, readying himself for taking on Wall Street yet again, orders up a wardrobe of suits and shoes like a knight readying for battle.
All in all, Wall Street is a thoughtful, having-it-both-ways good time about a more chastened present whose mix of playfulness and cynicism is illustrated by a winking ’80s-evocative soundtrack courtesy of the Talking Heads’ David Byrne and art rock impresario Brian Eno. This isn’t a commie take-down of capitalism, but a rueful survey of how the greedy excesses of the Bretton Jameses of the world have not only undermined national security for personal gain but have caused all of us to lose sight of true real American values.