September 24, 2010 at 1:00 am

Review: With intense 'Wall Street,' Stone revisits lessons on capitalism's excesses

Michael Douglas, left, star of Oliver Stone's original "Wall Street," emerges from prison to find his estranged daughter dating hotshot Shia LaBeouf. (20th Century Fox)

'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" wants to remind us: Greed is not good.

As timely as that message may be, it may also be somewhat unnecessary as millions of Americans look to their wrecked pension funds and underwater mortgages and shiver as unemployment statistics remain unnervingly high. Pretty much everybody knows it was greed that brought us to this messy state.

Still, the current economic crisis proved too great a temptation for director Oliver Stone, and thus there is "Wall Street" redux, coming 23 years after the original film. This sequel doesn't so much amplify the first film's message as offer a grand "Toldja so." And it's hard to argue with.

This time around, former Wall Street power broker Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is just getting out of jail for crimes committed in the first film.

He is estranged from his now-grown do-gooder daughter, Winnie (the luminous Carey Mulligan), who -- as cruel fate would have it -- is dating a young Wall Street hotshot, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf).

The film revolves around Jake, with Gekko serving as a mentor-manipulator. Early on, Jake's godfather in the financial business, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), is driven to suicide by the mean-spirited money-juggling of yet another Wall Street honcho -- this is a film filled with honchos -- Bretton James (Josh Brolin, piling it on a bit thick).

Jake figures out that James caused his father figure's ruin and soon strikes back, causing a bit of chaos that hurts James' bottom line. Rather than infuriating James, though, the act intrigues him, and he hires Jake.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to his girlfriend, Jake has met her father, who has written a book and is hitting all the financial talk shows. Gekko begins dispensing advice, Jake starts soaking it up, and eventually Winnie reconciles with her lonely father.

If this all sounds like a lot, it is, and Stone is just getting started. Wall Street collapses, the government bailout commences, and eventually Jake is corrupted by his surroundings.

Stone handles the financial stuff quite well. As in real life, it's never quite clear how the financial industry got away with acting so stupidly, or why the government had to bail out such mammoth and incompetent organizations, but the gist of it comes across: These were bad people acting badly and they will continue to act badly.

For the most part, the actors are better than their characters. LaBeouf's intensity carries the film, but did Jake have to prove his essential goodness by backing some mad scientist green energy contraption? Brolin plays James with more than a hint of Snidely Whiplash, and while Douglas is always an effectively likable louse, he does a sudden marshmallow turn at the end that seems apologetic.

Still, Stone's strong sense of melodrama and the undeniable reality of the situation he is describing make the film something of an entertaining civics lesson.

It's also massively disheartening much of the time, which is probably why Stone makes a soft landing at the end.

He still gets the point across: Greed is not good. But do the greedy really care?

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In Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" update, Shia LaBeouf plays ... (20th Century Fox)