Michael Douglas’ voice is one of the great instruments of American films (I hope he doesn’t lose it). Its timbre and buzz speak of a life lived fully and shrewdly; Douglas can’t persuasively play a dummy, not with those wised-up, insinuating pipes of his. Returning to his Oscar-winning gravestone role, Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street, Douglas sounds very much like a hungry spider returning to his silken web, waiting for gullible flies to come to him. The colors of the interiors run the gamut from blood to wine — deep burgundy, highly reflective espresso — and the older, grayer Gekko, in contrast with these surroundings, is no longer the sleekest shark in the tank. He’s a rumpled hermit in the back of a cave, reading financial omens everyone else is too far into the game to notice.
Age has chilled Douglas out more than a bit (maybe Catherine Zeta-Jones has helped). I once called him “perhaps the least relaxed of actors,” but now, in movies like Wonder Boys and this, he comes in and rocks the house as much as he ever did, only from a more centered place. In Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, also directed by Oliver Stone, Gekko is angry about his time in jail and sad about his estrangement from his daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan), but most of the time he kicks back like a Godfather or a returning king. It’s not a question of whether anyone will kiss his ring, but when. Hotshot Wall Street trader Jacob Moore (Shia LeBeouf), who happens to be involved with Winnie, gravitates to Gekko, and Gekko, after learning Jacob’s connection to his daughter, takes him into his confidence. Will he corrupt Jacob, as he did with Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox twenty years ago? No, his designs this time may be darker.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t the fast-moving bullet train its predecessor was; it feels enervated and somewhat irrelevant, behind the times (the original Wall Street was finished before the infamous ‘87 stock-market crash), commenting impotently on events from two years ago that ruined countless lives. (Jacob’s mom, a real-estate agent, played by Susan Sarandon, is shown suffering when the housing bubble bursts, but she’s all but forgotten about.) It’s tough to care about whether Jacob and Winnie’s young love will endure a season in Gekko hell, and the boardroom/backroom deals feel a bit dumbed-down. Josh Brolin’s suave hedge-fund manager bears most of the plot’s burden of guilt, effectively destroying first Jesse’s mentor (Frank Langella) and then, by association, the economy. “I was small-time compared to these guys,” Gekko growls.
There are several places the film could’ve ended and become a worthy, bitter update on Gekko and the world he helped create. But Stone keeps going; the result is disastrous. For all his radical posturing, Stone seems addicted to happy endings; he wants to make a difference, and a dark, realistic denouement wouldn’t gel with his deep-down instinct to keep hope alive. Despite unfolding during the last months of the Bush administration, and despite a plot thread involving green energy, this Wall Street is curiously apolitical, never making much of anything it shows us except that, for the most part, unseen people are understood to be impacted, somewhere, by the financial machinations. But Michael Douglas does what he can; he brings back the contemptible charmer Gekko, at least until the script shoves a sonogram in his face and sells him out to sappiness.