By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
There is a fine irony to the economic meltdown affecting millions of real lives being explained by the fictional patron saint of corporate shenanigans. If anyone can follow the money through this global maze of shady deals and alphabet soup loopholes, it's Gordon Gekko.
Twenty-three years after famously declaring the goodness of greed, Gordon has second thoughts in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a sequel that couldn't exist without robber barons taking his advice too far.
After decades of masticating history, director Oliver Stone has some "now" to gnaw upon. And he has a perfect mouthpiece for his polemics in Gordon, again played by Michael Douglas, who won an Oscar the first time and is even better here. If such an icon of excess can turn up his nose at the Wall Street games played today, why shouldn't we all?
Gordon missed the new wave, imprisoned after the first movie for insider trading that is child's play now. He is released and considered a relic, financially unable to get back in the game, so he writes a cautionary book about it. The fire still burns in his belly, along with a grudge against power banker Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who plundered his former empire and schemes to raid another.
An investment banking firm led by Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) teeters on the brink of ruin after the government refuses a bailout of its faulty loans. Bretton can steal the firm for pennies on the dollar. Meanwhile, Louis' protege Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is victimized by another facet of the meltdown, losing a fortune on bad speculation encouraged by Bretton.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps becomes a dizzying parade of layoffs, payoffs and paybacks, embellished with striking visuals of stock tickers and skylines resembling line graphs. Stone leaves no muck unraked, with perhaps too many explanatory exchanges for a movie that, at the end of the day, wants to entertain audiences. The movie is dryly professorial one minute then self-consciously amusing the next, as when Charlie Sheen shows up for no reason but nostalgia.
The coincidence that Jake's fiancee, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), is Gordon's estranged daughter is an easy way to make the first film's villain more sympathetic. Douglas plays Gordon with the same swagger and verbal daggers but has something besides money to play for. His killer instinct leads to a late twist that even Stone must find hard to swallow, and paternal instinct allows a tidier ending than the situation deserves.
But whatever his motivations or deeds, Gordon Gekko is a classic screen character and Douglas is never better than when playing him. For all the insider dialogue in Stone's movie, nothing delivers his message better than the envious glint in Gordon's eye; the guy who represented the absolute worst of capitalism 23 years ago is a piker compared with the crooks spoiling it today.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 8893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.