Mostly, I just sat back and enjoyed the actors. No one is better than Douglas at slipping into the skin of a human snake. As Douglas slithers, LaBeouf zags, unexpectedly good at playing the youth caught between social idealism and corporate pragmatism.
Jake wants to invest in green energy. For the paycheck he works for Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a vulture who possesses even more money and arrogance than Gekko in his heyday. James holds the Securities and Exchange Commission in his oily grip and his Morgan Stanley-like company has acquired Jake's failing brokerage.
The motif of Stone films diverse as Platoon, Wall Street, Any Given Sunday, and Alexander is a young man's search for the ideal father or father figure, whether it be his parent, sergeant, boss, football coach, or tutor. Money Never Sleeps, in which Jake loses a mentor and looks for a replacement, fits this mold.
In the film's early sequences Jake loses his boss, Louis Zabel (Frank Langella), principal of a Bear Stearns-like brokerage on the brink of collapse and taken over by Bretton James.
Hungry for a new mentor, Jake seeks revenge against the man feasting on Zabel's carcass. As if by magnetic force (or cosmic coincidence), Jake gravitates to Gekko, newly released from prison, in the hopes that his future father-in-law can help him take down James. If Gekko does, Jake will broker a reconciliation with him and his daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan, fetching and underutilized).
Onto Jake's revenge scenario, screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff graft the macro story of how the banks and SEC sucker-punched America. The operation doesn't take. The bankers' manipulations are the weakest element of Stone's Black Monday of a movie where the dizzying array of split-screens and graphs looks like a PowerPoint in search of a thesis.
Much as I enjoyed watching Douglas and LaBeouf dance their verbal tango, I cringed whenever Brolin, ordinarily an actor of some subtlety, peacocked across the screen, declaiming his lines.
As a demonstration of two actors working near the top of their game, Money Never Sleeps is diverting enough. But as a cautionary tale of personal and business ethics, the film has all the urgency of snail mail.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@ phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/