“How do you make money on a loss?” asks longtime Wall Street broker (and part-time Larry King impersonator) Louis Zabel, played with impressive gravitas by Frank Langella. This question drives much of the stock-market intrigue in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, an entertaining but unexceptional sequel to the iconic 1987 original.

The movie opens with Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas) release from prison, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks. (Never let it be said that director/producer Oliver Stone is a friend of subtlety. The film also features imagery of children’s bubbles floating into the sky in slow motion, dominos falling, and Goya’s painting of Saturn biting the head off his son.) It cuts, almost immediately, to 2008, using the market crash as a backdrop for a story that combines the main beats of the first film with a melodramatic romance featuring reluctant hero Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan), Gordon’s daughter.

The machinations of the crash are compelling if oversimplified — the screenplay by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff would have us believe everything occurred because of personal pissing matches between powerful, Gekko-esque banking titans — but this material takes a backseat to the romance and Gekko family drama. See, Gordon has reformed himself (publishing a book called Is Greed Good?, which purports to expose all the dirty tricks on Wall Street) and wants to reenter her live, but Winnie won’t have anything to do with him. More than any of the other bad things she’s learned about him, Winnie blames Gordon’s not being there to prevent the heroin-overdose death of her brother. Keep in mind, none of these people are referenced in the first film. In fact, I watched the original last year, and I don’t even recall Gordon mentioning that he has a family. Not that expanding Gordon’s character is a bad thing; I just felt like the frequent references to offscreen events involving characters we’ve never met or heard of does a disservice to the contemporary story — especially because much of it sounds more interesting than Jake and Winnie arguing about Gordon.

The good stuff in the movie comes from Jake’s attempts to ingratiate himself on Gordon. Jake is a trader for a firm whose collapse was engineered by Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who coincidentally had a lot to do with Gordon’s lengthy prison sentence (even though he, like Gordon’s family, never appears in the first film, and Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox character is downplayed and dismissed in a few sentences). Jake teams with Gordon to enter Bretton’s inner circle and take him down. Many of the tricks he uses mirror those used by Bud in the first film, which offers nice symmetry without providing anything new. On the other hand, Jake’s motives for taking down Bretton are much more interesting and complex than Bud’s, but I won’t spoil them.

It’s a combination of writing and acting that prevent the central relationship from really working. Every actor turns in a great performance — Frank Langella as a principled relic from another era, Josh Brolin as a cigar-chomping sociopath, Eli Wallach as an older-than-dirt banker who inspires more fear in those surrounding him than any man that frail should, Susan Sarandon as Jake’s sleazy real-estate agent mother, and Douglas reprising his Oscar-winning role — except the two who form the core of the story, LaBeouf and Mulligan. They’re not bad, but nothing about their relationship is dramatically engaging, and they’re not up to the challenge of taking a badly written romance and making it into something palpable or sincere. They’re just…there, playing out the mind-numbing melodrama with competence, but without the spark or enthusiasm they need to overcome the screenplay’s problems.

Stone bears some of the responsibility, as well. In his heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, he made a string of bombastic, fearless, histrionic films that are eminently watchable despite being largely ridiculous. They came from a place of clear passion, and obviously that passion is gone. Since U Turn, his films have lost the same spark LaBeouf and Mulligan lack. I’d hoped returning to earlier subject matter would have brought back some of the energy and enthusiasm of his older films, but that’s not the case here, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is worse for it.

All that said, this film is no abomination. It runs about twenty minutes longer than it should (and man did I feel it in those final twenty minutes), but it’s pretty entertaining for most of its runtime. It’s worth a rental for the good performances but not especially memorable or insightful.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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