Although Oliver Stone has made more controversial, earth-shaking movies than Wall Street, the 1987 hit does contain his most iconic figure. Gordon Gekko became the symbol of the rising, but dubious, economy of the 1980’s – although some took the message of the movie the wrong way. Despite being a corrupt, destructive figure, Gekko turned into a role model in some circles, which might explain a few things about today’s economic status. But because of that, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is out to bring Gordon Gekko back, and provide a mirror to today’s economy, as the original did for the 80’s – or so one would think.
After Gekko’s prison term for insider trading ends in 2001, he is left all alone, and unable to get back into the game. However, he still knows enough about the game to predict the upcoming economic crash in a best-selling book. One of the first casualties is Keller Zabel Investments, driving its founder, Louis Zabel, to commit suicide. But his protégé, Jacob Moore, is still driven to make it big for himself and his fiancé Winnie – whose last name happens to be Gekko. Once Jacob and Gordon inevitably meet, and discover they have a common enemy in the bigwig who brought Louis and Gekko down, they form an alliance behind Winnie’s back. However, things are about to come crashing down in more ways than one.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is one of those sequels that didn’t seem possible. However, thanks to an economic crisis that dwarfs even the Gordon Gekko era, Oliver Stone finally couldn’t resist bringing him back. Of course, it was hard to predict which Stone would go back to Wall Street – the hell raiser of the 80’s and 90’s, or the more mainstream version of today. In Money Never Sleeps, Stone tries to be both, like he was in the original, but finally tips over to the wrong side.
Bringing Gordon Gekko back in today’s hard times is a presumably can’t miss idea, and for many spurts, it plays like it. But the Gekko in Money Never Sleeps is not the same, as is made clear right away when he gets out of jail. Despite being the center of the world in Wall Street, Gordon is an outsider with little power this time, and has even become a voice of reason. This creates an interesting paradox, as Stone always expressed amazement at how Gordon became an anti-hero – yet that’s just what Stone seems to remake him as here.
For all of Gordon’s crimes in Wall Street, he was a smaller and smarter fish compared to today’s criminals, as the movie reminds us over and over. By setting Money Never Sleeps at the start of the 2008 crisis, Stone gets to make potshots at the corrupt social order, just like the old days. It works well in the beginning, with Frank Langella opening things up as Zabel, and in the middle when the bubble finally bursts. But addressing the fall of Wall Street is just one part of Money Never Sleeps – although as always, Stone often can’t follow the “less is more” creed.
Money Never Sleeps shifts itself into so many different directions, that even Gordon Gekko gets lost in the shuffle. He was a mere supporting player in the original as well, but Money Never Sleeps suffers more for his absence. Yet even when he does appear, it isn’t always the Gekko we know and loved/hated in 1987, which is an odd sight at times. This is never more evident than in the movie’s most powerful scene, when Gekko actually gets emotional over his son’s drug problems and death. Although it vividly draws parallels to Michael Douglas’s own troubles with his son – although Cameron Douglas is still alive – it is uneasy to see it coming from Gordon Gekko.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps has the same difficulty of the last few Star Wars and Hannibal Lecter movies, in that they demystified their villains when they went deeper in depth with them. But the old Gekko isn’t absent forever, although it is a longer wait than expected until he shows up. Still, Money Never Sleeps manages to hold up, almost in spite of itself, before then – until the last few minutes burst the movie’s own bubble. The differences between the old Stone and new Stone have rarely been made clearer than in the final few twists, and not in a good way.
Although Stone may have lost some of his cutthroat edge, he is lucky that Michael Douglas hasn’t. The long spurts without Gekko are made even more difficult when Douglas gets to work his silver tongue again. Despite the changes to Gordon, Douglas is as adept as ever in making it work, even when the script fails him. In fact, Douglas’s own life journey – both with his family and with his recent cancer diagnosis – adds a few extra layers to Gordon’s new adventures. Although the bar was set too high in 1987, Douglas doesn’t fall short for a lack of trying.
After Charlie Sheen had the thankless task as Gordon’s main victim 23 years ago, Shia LeBeouf takes on the mantle this time. But with Sheen, it was easy to buy him as a budding cutthroat consumed by greed and the high life, which is a dark side that LeBeouf doesn’t seem to have yet. Although LeBeouf often equips himself well against his older co-stars anyway, he can only muster flashes. Carey Mulligan has shown more than flashes in recent films like An Education and Never Let Me Go, and has her share here, but is ultimately limited by the script. Josh Brolin and Frank Langella sink their teeth into their supporting roles with relish, although Susan Sarandon is wasted as Jacob’s real estate-savvy mother.
Sequels are a volatile thing, with limited prospects for returns, but Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps had the potential to really buck that trend. For a lot of the time, Stone does exploit that potential, even if not to the fullest, showing glimpses of him and Gordon’s glory days. Yet the missed opportunities, obvious symbolism, and episodic plot slowly devalues the stock, although not to a fatal extent until the final minutes.
Until the bubble sadly bursts at last, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps serves as a good, often very good – but not as great as it should have been – reinvestment into Gordon Gekko. Yet the sequel may have taken the “Greed Is Good” mantra a little too seriously in trying to have it all – much like most of America.