Greed may be good, as Gordon Gekko insisted once upon a time, but evil pays the bills, at least as far as "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is concerned. The best parts of this unfocused, erratic, downright messy sequel are the moments when the bad people take center stage.
So let's hear it for Josh Brolin's Bretton (don't even think of calling him Bret) James, an investment banker with "an ego the size of Antarctica." And some applause for the fearless 94-year-old Eli Wallach's Julie Steinhardt, terrifying when he makes eccentric bird noises and talks about the crash of '29 and the end of the world. And we can't forget Michael Douglas as Gekko Redux, at least in those moments when the film allows him to be as bad as he ought to be.
For this version of "Wall Street" can't make up its mind if Gekko is the bad-to-the-bone Lizard King he once was or someone who's seen the light, thank you very much, and is on the road to redemption. Or maybe he's both. The trouble is, this is not an involving enough enterprise for us to work up the energy to care.
As directed by a returning Oliver Stone and written by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, "Wall Street" similarly can't decide if it's a revenge melodrama, an attack on aberrant Wall Street financial practices, an infomercial for hydrogen fusion or, that true Oliver Stone rarity, a touching romance. The film has more moving parts than a pricey Rolex, and they are not all in sync.
The nominal excuse for this sequel is a chance to deal with the factors that caused the recent global meltdown. But though the characters glibly throw around terms like "credit default swaps" and "toxic sub-prime debt," the words are just window dressing to give this pulpy venture an air of relevance it really doesn't have.
Though it doesn't always know how to use him, "Wall Street's" biggest asset, as always, is Douglas' Gekko, reintroduced getting out of prison in 2001 and getting reacquainted with an old mobile phone the size of a cinder block. Times have changed, Mr. G, get with the program or be left behind.
Looking grizzled as well as charismatic, like a street person turned nightclub impresario, Douglas is always fun to watch, and he brings considerable brio to the film as Gekko tries to reinvent himself as, of all things, a celebrity writer and all-around prophet of fiscal doom.
Unfortunately, Gekko is gone from the screen for big chunks of this "Wall Street" and has to share billing and face time with his co-protagonists, a young hotshot trader named Jake Moore, played by Shia LaBeouf, who just happens to live with GG's estranged daughter, played by Carey Mulligan.
Director Stone has said that La Beouf reminds him of a young Tom Cruise, but it is unlikely anyone else will see the resemblance. Though the film is at pains to paint his character as one tough hombre, complete with motorcycle-riding chops, Jake comes off more like a striving pipsqueak than a presence to be respected.
That central weakness creates a black hole in the film that sucks a lot of energy out of the proceedings. Especially hampered is Carey Mulligan, so luminous in "Never Let Me Go" and so altered here. Yes, it can't be much fun to be both the Gekkster's daughter and the head of a liberal website, but it's too bad the film seems to mandate that Winnie Gekko almost never has a nice day.
"Wall Street's" plot, such as it is, has young Jake seeking out Gekko as a mentor after his original father figure, an old-school investment banker named Louis Zabel (a pleasantly energetic performance from Frank Langella) meets an unfortunate end that Jake wants to avenge.
Gekko agrees, but, like every devil, he has his price: He wants Jake to clandestinely help him engineer a rapprochement with the glum Winnie, who has written her dad out of her life and has no interest in letting him back in.
As if that wasn't enough to keep our young man busy, he's also trying to keep afloat both a hydrogen fusion enterprise headed by the worried Dr. Masters (a miscast Austin Pendleton) and his own spendthrift mother (a badly used Susan Sarandon), who has wandered unwisely into real estate speculation. So many crises, so little charisma. If the bad guys didn't reappear with welcome regularity, "Money Never Sleeps" would be even more of a snooze than it already is.