When Oliver Stone made Wall Street back in the 1980s, he intended it to be a salutary tale of how the financial markets could be a force for good which were in danger of being hijacked by selfishness and greed. Twenty years on, narked that nobody took any notice of him the first time around, he's made a sequel which puts forward the same message just in rather more strident terms. It's just a shame that he doesn't hit the target with quite the same accuracy as he did the first time around, but with age has come a certain degree of self-indulgence.
The weakness is that it is in fact two films shoehorned together in a slightly unhappy marriage, and the joins show at times. On the one hand we have what is a pretty good dramatisation of the financial crash of 2008, which includes a quick précis of why and how it happened and why and how the bailouts were put together. I found this genuinely interesting if a bit light on detail and with nothing like enough fingers being pointed at responsible parties, but I realise that a financial docudrama wouldn't play to packed houses and so we get the punters through the door by bringing back Gordon Gekko who remains as iconic, and as self-interested, ruthless, manipulative and oily as ever. Michael Douglas as Gekko is the best thing in the film, but he brings with it its greatest weakness - a relationship between his daughter (Cary Mulligan) and his protégé (Shia leBeouf).
Mulligan and leBoeuf have one of those Hollywood relationships where you can see absolutely no reason why these two people are together beyond the fact that the script says they should be and where saying "I love you" justifies any sort of behaviour required to move the plot along. On the one hand, leBeouf plays a hotshot young market analyst and trader who deals with his heart rather than his head and gets emotionally involved with his client companies. Despite this he still makes pots of money for his employers, and I spent the first half of the film wondering if this were a satire on the fact that in the great boom years of 2006-8 even a monkey with a pin could make profits. However, even after the crash he continues to make money hand over fist from the same investment techniques, and I came to the conclusion that this was the same magic money you get from crossing your fingers and wishing very hard which Labour supporters think we can use to pay off the deficit and raise public spending at the same time. On the other hand, Cary Mulligan plays a crusading young journalist who is anti-capitalist and supports a fairer world in the way that only someone who owns a flashy loft apartment and works in an office where everyone sits in Herman Miller Aeron chairs can. Why these two are together is never explained beyond the plot needing a way to get Gekko back into the financial world, and a Mephistophelean deal between him and leBeouf allows for this to happen.
I know some people don't like leBeouf, but I think he's a particularly good actor as is Cary Mulligan and they make the best of a shonky script here but their relationship just isn't convincing. It's just there to advance the plot - she forgets to mention to him her $100m inheritance, he lies and emotionally blackmails it out of her and then (because he's a hotshot city banker, don't forget) he gives it to convicted fraudster Gordon Gekko no questions asked. And all the while the two sit there blubbing and saying how much they love each other. I just wanted to clock both of them on the nose.
It's a shame that the central plot is to weak, because the background stuff is often so good. We get an entertaining turn from an ancient Eli Wallach (the ugly from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly) playing a financier who is effectively Tuco in a suit. I half expected The Ecstacy of Gold to start playing whenever he turned up. We get Josh Brolin playing a sociopathic master of the universe banker. And, as mentioned, we get Michael Douglas chewing the scenery with gusto (especially in a delightful sequence towards the end in which he opens a hedge fund in London). To my dismay the film ends with a coda in which he gets something of a heart and donates a vast sum of money to a pointless green initiative to win the love of his daughter, but on a second reading it could be interpreted as him paying less than 8% of his net worth to buy access to his grandchild so I let it pass.
Overall? A 3-stars (out of five) film. A fairly good overview of the financial crash which fails to point fingers at some responsible people* which is uncomfortably wedded to a love story knocked out on the Hollywood Love-Scriptotron 3000. And Gordon Gekko who is, lets face it, the reason you'd go and see this film anyway. He's worth it, too.
*Such as Clinton repealing the Glass-Steagall act. But Oliver Stone is mates with Clinton, so no surprises there.