Director Oliver Stone never met an easy-to-grasp visual metaphor that he couldn't shamelessly exploit. That probably explains why there are multiple shots of children blowing bubbles in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." The bubbles float high into the sky, impossibly big against the bright blue sky. And then, just when you think the bubble might float forever ... pop.
Nope, subtlety has never been Stone's strong suit. But few filmmakers pick at our rawest societal scabs with quite as much brio and determination. "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," a sequel to Stone's 1987 melodrama "Wall Street," zeroes in on the turmoil of the late summer and early fall of 2008, when the high-flying world economy suddenly went hurtling over a cliff.
Like the original "Wall Street," the story here is little more than half-baked Greek tragedy, a tale of fathers and their surrogate sons and the boundless greed that unites them. Yet this movie displays an urgency and rage that makes it feel vibrantly alive. Stone discovers that, even after a cataclysmic financial meltdown, few of us seem capable of curing our addiction to excess.
The movie begins with Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) being sprung from prison, after an eight-year stint for assorted financial crimes. He's written a memoir, and can still draw a crowd to his book-signings, but most people seem to regard him as yesterday's news.
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The Gekko character, a much more straightforward bad guy in the original film, takes on an intriguing new arc here; he's the beaten-down gambler desperate to get back in on the action. Douglas, who won the Oscar for the first film (and who just keeps getting better with age), locates an unexpectedly touching weariness in Gekko, weariness that the actor perhaps knows all too well himself. (In Hollywood and on Wall Street, you can't go on being a star forever.)
But he never loses sight of Gekko's core of slime: Here's a guy forever on the hunt for a potential double-deal; a guy who understands that the details of the game might have changed, but that the game is still rigged.
The original film pitted Gekko against Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), an ambitious, if easily manipulated, young stockbroker. Sheen makes a cameo here, but the star is Shia La Beouf, playing Jake Moore, yet another ambitious and easily manipulated young trader who also happens to be dating Gekko's long-estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan).
The family melodrama that unfolds is decidedly creaky: Eager to develop a relationship with the notorious Gekko, Jake plots to reunite father and daughter. But poor Mulligan is left on the sidelines of the story, and for too long the movie seems to be marking time: When is Gekko going to drop the nice-guy act and re-emerge as the devil we know him to be?
Where the movie does come alive is with its spot-on portrait of the chaos of American life on the brink of financial apocalypse. Everyone in the movie is overextended and desperately anxious, including Jake's mother (Susan Sarandon), who earns money flipping houses in Long Island.
Stone saves his bitterest vitriol for Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a high-ranking executive at a powerful investment bank who also wants to take young Jake under his wing. In one especially powerful sequence, James and his boss Jules Steinhardt (Eli Wallach) make the decision to let the bank where Jake works fail. Stone hammers home a point that, even two years after the market meltdown, still seems to go widely unacknowledged: Our collective financial fates are in the hands of just a few very petty people.
You could lodge any number of fair complaints against "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps": It goes on too long; Brolin's villain is too one-dimensional; the neat-and-happy bow that Stone and screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff tie around the proceedings is ridiculous.
That misses the larger, more provocative point, which is to take the pulse of a society that doesn't seem to have learned its lesson. Stone's classic "JFK" famously ends with Kevin Costner literally pointing his finger at the audience, demanding that we ask questions of our leaders and pay more careful attention to history. The ending of this new film is no less caustic. The bubbles are still being blown much too big, still floating into the seemingly boundless sky. And they're still on the verge of bursting.