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Low risk, low return: 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'

By Tom Charity, Special to CNN
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Making the sequel to 'Wall Street'
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The sequel to "Wall Street" picks up 23 years later
  • Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, is out of jail and teamed with a new protégé
  • The film also stars Shia LaBeouf, Carey Mulligan and Josh Brolin

(CNN) -- "Everybody needs money -- that's why they call it money!"

That's a line from David Mamet's film "Heist" spoken by actor Danny DeVito as Mickey Bergman and not dialogue from Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps." But what a partnership those two characters would have made! Everybody needs money, and more of it.

The original "Wall Street" was a sizable hit for its day -- in 1987, $43 million still cut it -- and Douglas won an Academy Award for his portrayal of corporate raider Gekko.

Based on, or at least inspired by, convicted insider trader Ivan Boesky and "junk bond king" Michael Milken, Gekko was supposed to be the villain of the piece, and both he and his impressionable protégé Bud Fox (played by Charlie Sheen) ended the movie heading off to jail. "Probably the best thing that could happen to you," Bud's old man wisely remarked.

Gekko became a cultural touchstone. His provocative catchphrase, "Greed is good" might have been shocking during its time, but it became a mantra for a new breed of Wall Street trader.

Twenty-three years later Gekko is out of the slammer in the Oliver Stone directed "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps" (in real life, Milken was sentenced to 10 years and served less than two) and he meets another bright young prospect keen to glean: Jake (played by Shia LaBeouf).

Jake's pet project is fusion technology, green energy. But when his investment firm goes belly up and his boss steps in front of a subway train in the first wave of the 2008 meltdown, he swears to pay back in kind the ruthless banker he holds responsible. That would be Bretton James, an old Gekko foe, played by Josh Brolin (who appeared as George W. Bush in another Oliver Stone film, "W.")

In this case the enemy of my enemy is not only my friend, he's also Gekko's putative son-in-law -- Jake is engaged to Gordon's estranged daughter, Winnie (portrayed by Carey Mulligan).

Video: Stone on sequel to 'Wall Street'
Video: 'Greed is good' again
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The schematics are bald -- they often are with Stone -- but the new film's domestic and family scenes tend to be more convincingly written and performed than Charlie Sheen's dust-ups with his dad and Daryl Hannah's Darien in the original film. Mulligan and LaBeouf flesh out their characters' relationship with warmth and skill, yet it's easy to see why Jake would risk going behind her back to pick her father's brains.

In what is essentially a supporting role, Michael Douglas is smooth, compellingly savvy and teasingly ambiguous.

Is he truly seeking redemption and reconciliation with Winnie, or is he just playing the angles to get back in the game? We're never quite sure and perhaps the writers aren't either, because the movie doesn't seem to make up its mind on that point. The book he's busy touting is called "Is Greed Good?" and that question mark is left hanging there, even as he chuckles at the dim prospects of "the NINJA generation: No Income, No Job or Assets."

It takes Stone and screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff too long to get their ducks in a row, and while the current economic crisis gives "Money Never Sleeps" plenty of raw data to chew over -- the film is another installment in Stone's ongoing modern American history project -- it never matches the giddy dynamics of the wheeler-dealing that made the first "Wall Street" such an eye-opener (a tall order, admittedly).

Stone occasionally splits the screen into three to drum up some urgency, throws cable TV pundits on the fire and even tosses in a few personal cameos of himself. In an odd, almost nostalgic move, David Byrne contributes several songs from his recent record with Brian Eno, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today."

iReport: "Wall Street" gets a four out of five

None of this compensates for the movie's dumbed-down, sentimental conclusion, or the depressing realization that Stone, considered one of America's foremost conspiracy theorists, has allowed himself to be out-flanked by the real power brokers, or inured to corruption. He's forgotten the first and most basic rule: Follow the money.

The angry young man who wrote "Platoon" and "Scarface" might have taken them head-on, but today's masters of the universe get a pass, while Stone stands by, smiling gnomically, blowing bubbles.

 
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