“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” Is Too Big to Fail

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

A hundred million here, a billion there…it’s no big deal in director Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” But what scares me is that in laying down his muckrake of the shell game known as high finance, he almost makes me feel like I understand the stuff. Me, who can hardly balance my checkbook. Welcome to Bamboozlement #101.

So roll up your sleeves, grab that shot of caffeine euphemistically called an energy drink, and get ready to charge with the opening bell. It’s about the accumulation and manipulation of money, as well as a treatise on the perception of power. We’ve come a long way since Oog bartered a rock for an animal skin, or maybe no distance at all.

Utilizing a fine cast of mostly recognizable characters, Mr. Stone weaves his tale of monetary black magic within a traditional, dramatic framework. Shia LaBeouf stars as the prodigal young trader, Jake Moore, emotional successor to Dickens’s Pip in “Great Expectations.” Oh, he likes a buck all right. But just maybe he knows what to do with it.

Gosh knows most of the mentors and tutors he’s learned his craft from are awash in a cynical feeding frenzy, one whose only certainty is that having lots of money trumps everything else. But not Jakey…not yet at least. Smart and still high-minded, he believes money and knowledge can, at long last, be synergized for the good of all mankind.

High on a California fusion company that hopes to supplant troublemaking oil with unlimited seawater as the energy creating commodity of choice, he is more than matched in goody-two-shoes ambition by his girlfriend. Portrayed by Carey Mulligan, she is the winsome Winnie, proprietor of The Frozen Truth, a blog dedicated to fixing the world.

But she is yet one more thing. As close to Wall Street royalty as possible, Winnie is the daughter of Gordon Gekko, the “Greed is Good” corporate raider who went to prison following his misdealings in “Wall Street” (1987). And on this occasion in 2008 of the publication of his revelatory book, she wants absolutely nothing to do with him.

Michael Douglas gloatingly reprises the scalawag with an extra helping of inscrutability. Also seated at what is essentially a big poker game described in the buzzwords of the biz is Josh Brolin’s scurrilous Bretton James, number two man at too-big-to-fail Churchill-Schwartz. He answers only to Eli Wallach’s powerful, sublimely quirky Jules Steinhardt.

Set to the panicked debacle President Obama inherited when he took office in 2008, the scenario makes us privy to the backroom anguish and scurrying that officially prefaced the recession. The hushed terms— sub prime lending, hedge funds, profiting from losses—are nervously uttered, as if an angry god has descended to smite this economic Sodom.

Like the ingredients in Prego spaghetti sauce, if it’s suggestive of the crisis, it’s in there. And while the circumstances cause some thoughtful souls like Jake’s role model, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), to rethink their raison d’etre, the new blood on The Street further entices the mercenary Bretton James to greater slurpings. He is the cad personified.

At the opposite pole, Mr. LaBeouf’s idealistic financier is an embodying reminder that it is the love of money, and not money itself, that is the root of all evil. Yet his principles don’t put him above partnering with James and his ilk if it’ll ferry him to that nobly intended pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. His liaison with Gekko is more complex.

Shh. Don’t tell Winnie, but Jake figures he can accomplish two righteous feats with one David-launched (as in David and Goliath) stone. In return for a little info here and the temporary use of some purported cash in Switzerland, he’ll see what he can do to mend fences between daughter and dad, and maybe even finance his fusion firm in the bargain.

Poised precariously in this otherwise clearly delineated saga of good and evil, Michael Douglas’s reprise of Gordon Gekko delivers an enthralling wild card to the doings. One would be hard put to find a better reincarnation of an iconic movie character. It is as if Mr. Douglas utilized a time machine to iterate his vaunting, Peck’s bad boy of alchemy.

It’s vicariously liberating as Jake’s Odysseus battles the various monetary monsters that pollute the River Styx of modern banking. But put it in the parlance, over-simplification hurts the bottom line. Viewers expecting “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” to actually unravel the Medusa’s head of financial disingenuousness will feel shortchanged.

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation release directed by Oliver Stone and stars Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf and Carey Mulligan. Running time: 133 minutes

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