The lu­cre of love

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, cau­tion­ary tale, PG-13, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 2.5 chiles In 1988, Michael Dou­glas won an Os­car for his portrayal of Gor­don Gekko, the cut­throat Wall Street shark who voiced the mantra of the decade: “Greed is good.” Dou­glas is just as fine an ac­tor now as he was then, and he plays the same char­ac­ter in this gen­er­a­tion-later se­quel, but he is not go­ing to win a Best Ac­tor Os­car for the role this time around.

Much of the weak­ness is in the writ­ing. There is a soft­ness to Oliver Stone’s re­turn to the blood sport that is the fi­nan­cial mar­ket. Gor­don Gekko is back, yes, but he is a Gekko with warmer blood than a lizard ought to have. He’s still schem­ing and con­science­less, but there’s a core of high fruc­tose corn syrup in­side that hard shell.

What re­ally hurts is the qual­ity of his wit. Writ­ers Al­lan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have sad­dled Gekko with thin gruel in his menu of one-lin­ers. “Some­one re­minded me I once said greed is good,” Gekko tells a lec­ture au­di­ence. “But now it seems it’s le­gal.” There is ap­pre­cia­tive laugh­ter from the crowd, but they’re ex­tras be­ing paid. And when was greed il­le­gal?

His proud­est zinger, one that an­chors the film’s trail­ers, is the one he lays on the story’s archvil­lain, the soul­less hedge-fund ty­coon Bret­ton James (Josh Brolin). They meet and ex­change un­pleas­antries at a $10,000-a-head char­ity din­ner and dance at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art. “I’ll make a deal with you,” Gekko purrs silk­ily. “Stop telling lies about me, and I’ll stop telling the truth about you.” It’s a nifty line, but it’s older than your grand­fa­ther’s false teeth. Vari­a­tions of it can be traced at least as far back as the 1890s, to a New Mex­ico in­dus­tri­al­ist named J.J. Hager­man, and it’s

been a sta­ple of po­lit­i­cal repar­tee for more than a cen­tury.

The bedrock premise of the story is that de­spite what you may think, good peo­ple once ruled the are­nas of high fi­nance. Louis Za­bel, the head of a Bear Stearns-ish out­fit who is played with gusto and a del­i­catessen growl by Frank Lan­gella, is men­tor and fa­ther fig­ure to the film’s hero, a young trader at his firm named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Jake is a go-get­ter — Za­bel hands him a bonus check for more than a mil­lion dol­lars right off the bat — but his spe­cialty is in the ide­al­is­tic field of re­new­able en­ergy. He’s try­ing to help a sci­en­tist (Austin Pendle­ton) make a go of a cut­ting-edge project called United Fu­sion, which seeks to con­vert sea wa­ter into en­ergy on a com­mer­cial scale. But Za­bel’s firm crashes and burns, Za­bel does the same, and Jake goes to work for James, the man who or­ches­trated the dis­as­ter, with re­venge on his mind.

Where’s Gekko through all of this? As the movie opens, he’s be­ing re­leased from prison in 2001 af­ter serv­ing eight years for in­sider trad­ing. He re­claims his pos­ses­sions, in­clud­ing a cell­phone the size of a toaster, and walks out the gates to a lonely world where no­body is wait­ing for him.

There is a daugh­ter, but she’s not speak­ing to her fa­ther, be­cause he was in stir when the fam­ily was fall­ing apart, and she blames him for her brother’s sui­cide. Her name is Win­nie, and she is win­ningly played by Carey Mul­li­gan. Win­nie is the film’s real moral an­chor, run­ning a “lefty web­site” that cham­pi­ons green causes. As luck would have it, she’s liv­ing with Jake, and Jake makes over­tures to Gekko and tries to en­gi­neer a rap­proche­ment be­tween fa­ther and daugh­ter.

It’s a wel­come devel­op­ment, be­cause af­ter his prison re­lease Gekko dis­ap­pears from the movie for a while and is missed. For an in­vet­er­ate mover and shaker, Gekko hasn’t made much progress be­tween his re­lease and 2008, when this story gets un­der­way. He has writ­ten a book — Is Greed Good? — and is do­ing sign­ings in malls. He jumps at the chance to re­con­nect with his daugh­ter, and one of the film’s most ef­fec­tive scenes is their rec­on­cilia-

Green is good: Michael Dou­glas and Shia LaBeouf

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