Michael Douglas is known for one reason in the world of movies: playing the knowledgable-yet-charismatic jerk (his role as President Andrew Shepherd in "The American President" immediately comes to mind). His character in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," as the reformed businessman Gordon Gekko is no exception. A sequel to Oliver Stone’s 1987 film "Wall Street," "Money Never Sleeps" serves as both an effective sequel and an interesting take on the 2008 financial crisis, and can be enjoyable even as a standalone experience.
The film centers around the life of Jake Morgan, played by Shia LeBeouf ("Transformers"), who works for the struggling trading company Keller Zabel, and takes place just before the 2008 economic downturn. Morgan is looking to fund a fusion research project that he hopes will be a viable source of energy in the future. He lives with his girlfriend (and later fiancé) Winnie Gekko (Carrie Mulligan, "An Education"), who just happens to be the estranged daughter of Gekko. Following Gekko’s release from prison in 2002, he became an author and lecturer who predicted the collapse of the financial system. After proposing to Winnie, Morgan attends one of Gekko’s lectures in the hopes of meeting him. Gekko shares with Morgan his philosophy of everything in life being a trade, offering him financial advice in exchange for interaction with his daughter. The two work together to uncover what drove Morgan’s mentor, Lewis Zabel, to commit suicide. Their search leads them to the financial crisis that began near the end of 2008, and into the middle of major conspiracy involving members of the crumbling Keller Zabel, the Federal Reserve Board, and a rival firm.
While potentially confusing to those not "in the know" about Wall Street (both the original film and the financial district), the film manages to remain entertaining throughout. Douglas shines as Gekko in an interesting performance that changes him from being the main antagonist of the first film to being something of an antihero, a concept that, despite seeming out-of-place at first glance, manages to fit perfectly into Gekko’s character. LeBeouf is a fairly decent fit as Morgan and Josh Brolin ("Milk") is perfect as the film’s villain, Bretton James. Mulligan, however, is poor as Gekko’s daughter, and it is hard to distinguish between her character’s personality or her own plasticity at times. Thankfully, her character has much less screen time than Douglas, LeBeouf and Brolin, so it’s not too problematic. In addition, Susan Sarandon ("The Lovely Bones") makes an appearance as Jake Morgan’s mother, a real estate agent whom Morgan believes is just as consumed by greed as Gekko. While her character lacks a great amount of screen time, she serves as an effective example of just how ugly greed can be.
Despite being the first of Oliver Stone’s films to be made into a sequel, the movie’s plot is fairly standalone. The characters are the only main holdover from the first film. Charlie Sheen reprises his role from the first movie in a brief cameo, which serves as proof of the film’s "independence" from the original. Although the movie is engaging overall, the story begins to drag near the end of the second act, when the plot gives way to Stone’s personal feelings on the 2008 financial crisis and how some businesses tried to "cheat" because of it. In fact, a great deal of the movie is devoted to the idea that, contrary to the title of Gekko’s book Greed is Good, greed is inherently bad, not only for the rich, but for the entire financial system. While this makes for a nice message, the film’s setting during the economic downturn seems a tad exploitative at times, given how recently the crisis began and how we are arguably still feeling the aftereffects of it.
While not necessarily for everyone, "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is a well-made film, and is worth watching.