By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
The white-shoe "Keller-Zabel" firm employs whiz-kid proprietary trader Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a specialist in alternative energy, whose story begins in oblivious, pre-crash 2008, as he sights a gathering storm in the gray, lost expression of Lew Zabel (Frank Langella), managing partner and his father figure. Foundered by rumored toxic subprime debt, Lew goes before the Federal Reserve Board. Hope of clemency is cut off when Mephistophelean hedge-fund manager Bretton James (Josh Brolin), of Churchill Schwartz, leans into frame: "Your valuations are no longer believable" are the words that drop like a guillotine.
Negotiating a humiliating fire sale in payback for a grudge from the dot-com bubble burst, James leaves Zabel for dead—and Jake goes looking for revenge and a new mentor. One possibility is the estranged father of the girl he's going to marry, Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan, pure chloroform). Coming out of Sing Sing in the film's prologue, Dad Gordon Gekko's aquiline profile could belong to a hungover Founding Father. Made an example of by the SEC and spurned by his only relation, Gekko (Michael Douglas) has become a prophet in the wilderness of financial doomsday, hawking his book Is Greed Good? on the lecture circuit. "You're the NINJA generation—no income, no job, no assets," he tells a crowd of twentysomethings, including Jake, who starts meeting with Gekko behind Winnie's back, pumping the guru for advice in exchange for facilitating a family reunion. Jake's other role model is his new boss—James himself. Impressed by the kid's sabotage attempts, James keeps his enemy closer at Churchill Schwartz.
LaBeouf, whose wholly inexplicable celebrity suggests he has compromising photos of God, is tasked with reflecting the film's subtler dilemmas, such as whether Zabel's honest incompetence is nobler than James' wicked efficiency. But projecting ambition through a pert frown and intent gum-chewing, he's flat and dull where he needs to gleam from both sides of a divided loyalty. There's no sense of moral suspense in Jake and James' uneasy partnership.
The "stocks and bonds" story moves along nicely in fact, all headlines, hambone and pissing contests. It's Jake's the-personal-is-professional merger with the Gekko family that shows a tendency to melodrama unredeemed by wit. Working in the good-guy field of "saltwater fusion," he's no idealist. "The only green is money, honey," he tells the fiancée, whose pretty Swiss bank account he'll sweet-talk his way into while clandestinely meeting with Gekko, who's working angles all his own.
"We're all mixed bags" is the conclusion of unwieldy mixed bag Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Floating off on a faux-naïve happy ending, one takes the lesson that there are no villains—or that villains are all there are.
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