I don’t know about you, but I like my Oliver Stone straight-up, with all the lunatic delusions writhing in my face. JFK, Ollie’s 1991 fever dream about the Kennedy assassination, is the platinum standard here, I think. I haven’t seen 2003’s Comandante, his mash note to Fidel Castro (“one of the Earth’s wisest people”), but then not many have—HBO, which commissioned the doc, quickly dumped it. And I passed on last year’s South of the Border, Stone’s salute to Hugo Chavez (“the man is intoxicating”), and contented myself with watching news footage of the two of them swanning around the Venice Film Festival together in matching red ties.
Given his penchant for demented rich-lefty political blather, you’d expect Stone to approach the subject of the 2008 stock-market meltdown with fangs bared. Oddly, though—possibly because of his pressing need for a box-office hit—he hasn’t done a full Ollie this time out. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the sequel to his 1987 hit Wall Street, stops short of calling for the death of capitalism or a return to the comforting simplicity of a barter economy.
Regrettably, this uncharacteristic restraint deprives us of the sort of what-the-fuck entertainment value that Stone can be so adept at providing. The film attempts both to tell a standard Hollywood love story and to stuff in all the details of the subprime mortgage mess around the edges. It’s a pity the story flatlines, and in the end the details—too tangled for any movie to contain—bury the picture.
Michael Douglas, being irreplaceable, is back as Gordon Gekko. You’ll recall that in the 1987 film, the Gekko character, with his slicked-back hair and strapping suspenders, provided not just the sartorial template for a real-world generation of Wall Street weasels, but also a brazen battle cry: “Greed is good.” (Adam Smith may still be weeping.) Now at large once again after doing eight years in prison on an insider-trading conviction, Gekko sniffs a new strain of financial malfeasance in the air. Biding his time till he can figure out a way to profit from it, he has published a book, called Is Greed Good? The titular question is of course rhetorical.
Gekko longs to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who runs an investigative news website presumably dedicated to taking down wheeler-dealers like her dad. And yet Winnie herself is romantically entwined with a young Wall Street investment wiz named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). But Jake’s okay—he’s an anti-weasel, a specialist in funding virtuous new forms of alternative energy. Jake’s beloved mentor is his aging boss, Lou Zabel (Frank Langella), who’s presented as the last moral man on Wall Street (and possibly the most clueless: He says things like, “How do you make money on losses?”). When Lou’s venerable firm is sacked by a hedge-fund snake named Bretton (Josh Brolin), Jake vows revenge. Fortunately, the wily Gekko is on hand to help out. (Sure.)
As the story marches resolutely toward the puddle of emotional mush into which it topples at the end, Stone has Gekko shovel in endless fiscal explication. There’s the requisite stuff about bundled debt and evil bankers, but any film on this subject that presumes to explain the concept of moral hazard without even whispering the words “Fannie Mae” or “Freddie Mac” clearly has an agenda other than enlightenment. Cluttering things further are Stone’s usual visual eccentricities, among them some alarmingly perky animated graphics (explaining fusion technology!). For bad measure, there’s also a procession of celebrity cameos by Charlie Sheen (nudge, nudge), wing-haired Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, and, most distractingly, the director himself. Douglas, LaBeouf ,and the heartily hissable Brolin give solid performances, and so does Susan Sarandon, in a few brief scenes as Jake’s real-estate-flipping mom. But Langella is marooned in mopery, and the radiant Mulligan, so impressive in An Education and Never Let Me Go, is trapped in tedious weepery.
For those unintrigued by any of this, there’s an inviting alternative. For less than the price of two tickets to this movie you could pick up a copy of The Big Short, Michael Lewis’ excellent book about the Great Crash of ’08, which is both grippingly written and deeply informative. The clincher: It’s entirely Ollie-free.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York. This column first appeared at Reason.com.