If there ever was a perfect time to make a sequel to the 1987 Oliver Stone classic, WALL STREET, now would be it. The 2008 economic meltdown serves as the ideal antithesis to Gordon Gekko’s infamous mantra that greed is good. Corporate America seemed to have taken Gekko’s philosophy to heart and ran away with it over the past few decades. Suddenly, we had a lot of mini-Gordon Gekkos running around Wall Street. So its no surprise that in these days of legal blunders from the likes of Bernard Madoff and Allen Stanford, bank crises, and government bailouts, Gordon Gekko is the prodigal son returning to a broken corporate landscape. However, interestingly enough, as reviled as Madoff and Stanford have become in the eyes of the public, Gekko and his persona and philosophy have always been celebrated. We now have WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS, where we find out what Gordon Gekko is up to after his fall and, more importantly, what he thinks of this whole mess. Oliver Stone has more or less returned to his earlier style of filmmaking where he focuses less on littering his films with overtly symbolic visual cues and more on directly telling a story. It’s a welcome return to form for Stone, but ultimately, I was underwhelmed by WALL STREET 2.

WALL STREET 2 begins with Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, who won an Oscar for this role in the first film) being released from prison after serving 8 years for corporate fraud. We then fast forward several years and find Gekko as a successful lecturer and author of a book about the current state of the economy. The 2008 crash has not yet begun and Gekko appears to be the only person who foresees the coming crash. We are then introduced to Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a young, ambitious, and successful broker for a well-known brokerage firm (a la Bear Stearns) that’s run by his mentor (Frank Langella). Jake lives the champagne life in NYC and he also happens to date Gekko’s estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan, from last year’s excellent AN EDUCATION). When the crash hits, Jake’s firm goes under, which is caused by rumors spread by a rival broker named Bretton James (excellently played by James Brolin). The firm’s demise causes Jake’s mentor to take his life. Seeking revenge, Jake gets himself hired at Bretton’s firm so that he can fuck him over somehow. In the meantime, he befriends Gekko and attempts to reconcile Gekko with his daughter while also learning from Gekko.

Some of you will be disappointed to learn that the primary focus of WALL STREET 2 is on Shia LaBeouf’s character. Those of you expecting this movie to be mainly about Gordon Gekko’s triumphant return will be disappointed. I didn’t mind this so much as I found Jake to be an interesting and well-developed character. If you recall, WALL STREET also focused mostly on Charlie Sheen’s character and you have the same here. The difference is that I felt Shia LeBeouf gave a stronger performance than Sheen did. LeBeouf’s energy and constant drive was infectious and made me invest in his character. One of the things I enjoyed about WALL STREET 2 was how Oliver Stone represented all aspects of the financial bust through his characters. Langella and his firm represent Bear Stearns. Bretton James is similar to Bernard Madoff. Jake represents all the young turks who were making money hand over fist through huge bonuses. Susan Sarandon plays Jake’s Long Island real estate agent mom. Her character gets wound up in the real estate boom and when that bubble bursts, she begs her son to loan her money so that she won’t lose her houses to the bank. I identified with Sarandon’s character the most, as I’ve known too many people (mostly in the Assyrian community, which was heavily involved in the real estate market) who got burned when the real estate market crashed. Finally, there is Austin Pendleton’s scientist character, who is working on a green alternative energy program that Jake is heavily investing in. Although this isn’t so much related to the financial bust, alternative energy has been an ever-present headline in our media before, during, and after the bust.

Stone clearly sets out to make an epic film that encompasses every aspect of the 2008 financial crisis. When it comes to bombastic, epic scale productions with overarching themes fit for a 1,000-page novel that reads like the greatest American novel, Stone is the obvious choice. Here, he attempts that and I think he succeeds in varying degrees to convey the paranoia that gripped the country. For example, he uses the NYC skyline to represent a Dow Jones graph that shows the market plummeting and he has a couple of scenes where the heads of all the major banks meet behind closed doors with the Federal Reserve to discuss how they’re going to stop the hemorrhaging. No filmmaker can convey paranoia like Stone can (see for example JFK when the country learns of JFK’s assassination, NIXON, and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY). Stone does a masterful job of contrasting American idealism and values with an underlying corruption and he does that here in the beginning of the film where we see the happy-go-lucky days before the bust and the panic that resulted afterwards.

What I did not like about Stone’s direction was his very obvious use of symbolism. When the financial bubble is about to burst, we see a bunch of kids running around Central Park blowing bubbles. When the bottom finally falls out, we see a set of falling dominoes. Stone didn’t have to be so unsubtle, especially with an event that was so recent and still burned into the nation’s psyche. The use of color schemes, camera framing, and other more subtle techniques was more than sufficient to convey the filmmaker’s message without having to resort to symbolism.

Another issue I had was with the 2nd half of the story. Before I go on, there are spoilers ahead so you’ve been warned. The direction the characters go and the way the story resolves itself not only feel too convenient, but they’re disjointed and the film doesn’t flow. Gekko is portrayed during most of the movie as a man who has been humbled and as one who seeks to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter. He sees the folly of his earlier ways and we get the sense that he is no longer powered by greed. We’re wrong. Stone spends all this time setting up the audience just so that we can be tricked by Gekko in the end. We discover that Gekko is still the same greedy asshole from the first movie and his stint in prison was not enough to reform him. He takes advantage of his daughter and Jake’s trust and reestablishes his former position of power. This did not seem real to me given the film’s progression. I didn’t buy that Gekko was merely scheming to get back and that he didn’t learn anything from being in prison. Furthermore, the all-too-easy manner that our characters dispose of Bretton James is ridiculously convenient. Sure, media rumors can and do spread like wildfire, but that depends on who’s doing the reporting. Winnie’s hippie blog (NOTE: A blog that has nothing to do with financial news) is the first to report about Bretton James’ swindling of investors. This gets picked up immediately by the rest of the media and before we know it, James is being investigated and put behind bars. I have never heard of a little-known environmental newsletter breaking this kind of news before and having it here just smacked of lazy storytelling.

Michael Douglas is great as Gordon Gekko, but you already knew that. He brings back the cold-hearted attitude of his character and even though I didn’t care for the way his character reverts back to his bad old self, it was still nice to see him in old form. However, the actor who struck me the most was Josh Brolin, who once again impressed the hell out of me with his performance. There is no doubt that Brolin is one of the most talented actors working today. Here, he oozes with calculation and greed. He even out-Gekko’s Gekko and he serves as a fine antagonist for the characters to go after in this movie.

I found WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS as an above-average, entertaining film that should have been much better. It is by no means a bad film, but its certainly not the masterpiece that I was hoping to see. Although we once again see Stone’s politics on display here, I didn’t see the rage that Stone used to imbue his earlier films with. I wanted to see the mad-as-hell Stone skewer the financial system just like he did in JFK, BORN ON THE 4TH OF JULY, and WALL STREET. Nowhere did I see Stone’s middle finger to the Wall Street barons and even though I don’t agree with Stone’s politics, I am nevertheless entertained by them. WALL STREET 2 treads water, but it fails to part the sea, which it promised to do and what Stone could have done had he made this film during his earlier heyday.