There's too much worth chewing over in Oliver Stone's Wall Street sequel, Money Never Sleeps, to dismiss it out of hand.
Sure, it's old-fashioned — '80s old-fashioned, in the Tom Cruise-cocky way that Shia LaBeouf plays his cocky, earnest young hot dog investment analyst and in the dated ironic wailing of David Byrne on the soundtrack.
It's almost kitschy — the way Stone injects himself into a couple of scenes, an eccentric Eli Wallach cameo, and the inclusion of a Charlie Sheen moment that flat-out winks at the audience.
But before it goes off the rails, we're treated to a vintage Stone history lesson — the stock market meltdown and Fed intervention as seen through the eyes of the conspiracy buff who served up J.F.K. Lovely performances surround the leads, LaBeouf and Michael Douglas, back as Gordon Gekko. Terrific moments of regret play out. And then the script lets everybody down, the clichés pile up like junk bonds and you wonder whether the cinema's resident mad genius is just too angry or too confused by who to blame.
LaBeouf is Jacob Moore, a whiz-kid energy-investment expert at a firm where his sainted mentor (Frank Langella, who is brilliant) is watching a lifetime of work melt down with the rest of Wall Street. The stock market's derivatives confidence game has lost confidence, and soon only the schadenfreude-eating grin of a hated competitor (Josh Brolin) remains.
Jacob's mom (Susan Sarandon) is an over-extended real estate speculator. Jacob's girlfriend, Winnie (Carey Mulligan) runs a non-profit left-leaning news Web site. They live spectacularly well, but she feeds his idealism. He takes a job with the hated competitor and continues pushing a fusion company that could solve the world's energy problems.
But then there's Winnie's last name — Gekko. She's Gordon Gekko's estranged daughter, who blames Dad's greed for all that went wrong in their family. Douglas' Gekko has aged into a rumpled, lonely ex-con who now makes a living selling his book, Is Greed Good?, and lecturing. Winnie isn't buying his "reform" and doesn't want Dad back in her life, but Jacob nobly conspires to change her mind. And maybe use Dad's expertise.
Revenge and redemption wrestle in this confused Allan Loeb-Stephen Schiff screenplay. Graphics explain hydrogen fusion and market "corrections," and the whole 2008 meltdown is replayed by the same cable business news pundits who acted so clueless when it happened the first time.
LaBeouf plays this kid as a know-it-all with a manic energy and a fist bump for everybody — very Tom Cruise. Douglas manages to suggest an old man trying to get right with his family even as old habits — underhandedness, glad-handing prospective clients — die hard. Brolin embodies what Tom Wolfe labeled a Wall Street "Master of the Universe" — collecting art and motorcycles and billion-dollar deals with a swagger that doesn't mask his shallow shiftiness.
Money Never Sleeps is never boring, even as its plot descends into cheap melodrama and the script runs out of banter about the "the NINJA generation — no income, no job, no assets."
But to borrow a phrase from the film and from financial regulators, it's a movie with a "moral hazard," as in it can't decide who or what is moral. That makes it a less self-assured film than the original and less important. How bad does America's financial problem have to be for it to confound even Oliver Stone & Co.?