Sept. 28 2010 12:00 AM

Disappointing sequel has too much LaBeouf and too little beef

"Greed is good," Wall Street wizard Gordon Gekko famously proclaimed in director Oliver Stone's 1987 hit "Wall Street." The statement was meant to be alarming but, in the rush-rush, help-yourself climate of the late 1980s, plenty of people agreed with him.
Twenty-three years later, in the era of "too big to fail," we've all seen the catastrophic after-effects of that philosophy, and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" finds Gekko, once again portrayed by Michael Douglas, serving as more of a Cassandra than a cheerleader. He's served a lengthy stretch in prison ("the best thing that ever happened to me," he insists) and written a book titled "Is Greed Good?" that's he's actively promoting.
But while "Money" is quick to condemn the amorality and excesses of the modern "masters of the universe" -- the villain, predictably, is a fat cat with a George W. Bush smirk who gets his kicks destroying competitors for fun and profit -- it also teases us with flashy labels (Moet Champagne and Johnnie Walker Blue Label get prominent placement) and a blinding array of bling: A scene at a charity ball functions as little more than an excuse for Rodrigo Prieto's camera to drool over the dangling diamond earrings and knockout necklaces draped on a parade of over-primped trophy wives. Similarly, a superfluous motorcycle race through the woods amounts to little more than a commercial for Ducati bikes. Greed may no longer be good, but it's still pretty glamorous.
1285220176_3.jpgUnsurprisingly, the there's-more-to-life-than-your-bank-balance message of "Money" ends up muddled. At the end of the original, we could believe trader Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) had learned something about loyalty and the dangers of taking the easy way to the top. The conclusion of "Money" is harder to buy, partly because it depends on a half-hearted twist and partly because even screenwriters Allen Loeb and Stephen Schiff don't seem to believe their own contrivances.
While Stone's film is often flashy and sometimes funny, it's just as frequently frustrating, since the most engaging characters keep getting dumped out of the story or squeezed into the sidelines. Mystifyingly, that includes Gekko, who pops in occasionally to make a speech or pitch a plan and then vanishes for entire reels.
That gives us ample opportunity to get acquainted with Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), an investment bank  hotshot who makes millions, but kindly sends a chunk of each check to his buddy who's working on an ambitious alternative energy project. Moore is also living with Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who operates a left-wing online news outlet that she describes as "non-profit"; to Moore and his cronies, that's practically a four-letter word.
Winnie hasn't spoken to her dad in years and has no interest in mending the broken family ties, but Moore meets with Gekko in secret and becomes convinced the old snake has finally shed his slimy skin. For his part, Gekko sees a bit of himself in Moore's take-charge spirit and his ability to stay a step ahead of his enemies, which include Gekko's old nemesis, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a loathsome wheeler-dealer who makes Gekko seem like a Sunday school teacher.
Yet despite the admiring looks Gekko throws in Moore's direction, Moore is not another Gekko and LaBeouf is certainly no match for Douglas. "Money" requires LaBeouf to do a considerable amount of heavy lifting, and he simply isn't up to the task. While he reads his lines more or less convincingly, his acting is all on the surface; when you look into his eyes, you don't see a driven financial genius or a passionate boyfriend -- you see a performer waiting for his next cue and trying to remember the right line and reaction. Putting him up against emotional powerhouses like Douglas, Mulligan and Frank Langella (who plays Moore's worn-down mentor) is reminiscent of the old "Don Adams' Screen Test" show, in which starry-eyed amateurs got their chance to play scenes opposite seasoned pros.
Imagine visiting your favorite steakhouse and being served one tantalizing cube of Kobe beef every 20 minutes or so while the waiter kept bringing breadsticks and water: That's what it feels like when Michael Douglas is reduced to Special Guest Star status in a Shia LaBeouf movie.
Still, a little Gekko is better than none at all, and Douglas provides a believable portrait of a lion in winter, sorting through the fragments of his turbulent past and trying to figure out his next move. The strongest scene in the movie has nothing to do with business at all. It's a riveting, splendidly played conversation/confrontation between Winnie and Gekko, in which both of them try to express their anger and regrets while still, cautiously, reaching out to one another. The rest of "Money" is eye-appealing, but this is the only moment that actually stirs the emotions.