Greed is good,” declared Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in “Wall Street,” Oliver Stone's cautionary tale of conspicuous consumption from the '80s. Douglas' Gekko is back for the sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” and so are his memorable one-liners. “Now it's legal,” he tells a packed auditorium about greed upon his release from prison for insider trading, armed with a book deal and an eye for a comeback in the wildly speculative new age of credit-default swaps.
The stage is set for Stone to tell an even bigger story this time around, with the world's recent near escape from another Great Depression. But while the contemporary climate of deregulation offers even larger prey, somehow Stone's follow-up results in something smaller, certainly less satisfying than the original, favoring a multifaceted history lesson over solid story and lacking the kinds of devious characters and sordid actions that made the first entry an extremely entertaining thriller if not a classic.
The new movie moves along nicely at least for its first third, beginning with the release of Gekko, let loose from jail with only his comically large mobile phone and a check for $1,800. Jake (Shia LaBeouf) learns about the event on a 24-hour news program, and seeks the man out. For one thing, Jake himself is an ambitious Wall Street guy, and for another, he's about to become engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan).
Both men have a reason to be interested in each other, and the movie hinges, in part, on what becomes of their newfound partnership. They have one other thing in common: Both want to take down Bretton Woods (Josh Brolin), one of the bigger, nastier players in the new economy, head of a large investment company who presided over the gutting of another failing giant run by Jake's former mentor, Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella).
All these converging story lines promise a lot of back stabbing, insider shenanigans, cutthroat power plays and lust, for money at the very least. The results aren't terrible, but a little mild coming from the land of corporate mergers, focusing on the big picture — an attempt to squeeze the larger story of the world economic collapse into a handful of principle players.
Sometimes the soapbox point of view works, as in a couple of early scenes in which Woods intimidates Zabel into selling his company off at $3 a share, a composite of the collapses and panics that took place a few years ago. In one such office meeting, a disembodied voice from a conference speaker presides over a roundtable of chief executives, wittily and forebodingly suggesting that there's always some hierarchy in these games of power and influence beyond the realm of public scrutiny.
While the director's less agreeable impulses accumulate — recasting the execrable Charlie Sheen in one cameo and putting himself in no less than three times — the main characters increasingly come across as the good guys and bad guys in routine action movies, on two occasions accidentally parroting moments from “Team America: World Police.” (Seriously, couldn't they think of a better line than, “You've got balls, kid”?) Weirdly, a lot of the film's lengthy expository conversations take place in speeding vehicles. The movie has a great soundtrack, a collection of elegiac tunes from David Byrne and Brian Eno, but it never quite lives up to them.
“It's not about the money,” Gekko declares at one point. “It's about the game, the game between humans.” Sounds true enough, but Stone, armed with enough skyscraper footage to wrap around the Empire State Building, fails to find the human story within these steel and glass towers. The hero from the original barely saved his soul. Jake is never really tempted, just talked into doing something unwise as he gets batted from one portentous showdown to another.
Today's public certainly seems more interested in the trivia of issues, but it's difficult to say whether “Money Never Sleeps” will sell. Like every book and graphic novel, every public topic seems fair game for a movie deal these days, but issues still need to be turned into good stories, as evinced by all the failed adaptations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Wall Street” was a clever indictment of an era. “Money Never Sleeps” is a bald diatribe with easy answers. Greed may be good, but hubris is a deadly sin in any industry. PG-13 136 min.