Barry Wetcher

The champion of All-American greed returns

September 21, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

The sequel to Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning 1987 hit Wall Street begins in 2001, when Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released from federal prison with a business suit, an antiquated cell phone, and not a soul to greet him. ”You take this character, who’s become an icon of greed, and you turn that on its head and see this broken man,” says costar Josh Brolin, who plays a ruthless investment banker of the post-Gekko generation. ”That represents exactly what we’ve done in America as a society. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.” Indeed, as Stone himself puts it: ”The fact that the [financial] crisis happened helped get this movie made and revitalized Gordon Gekko.”

Gekko is now a financial writer, on a press tour to promote his first tome, Is Greed Good?, and trying in vain to build a friendly relationship with his daughter (Carey Mulligan). She, in turn, is dating a whippersnapper trader (Shia LaBeouf) struggling to survive in a sinking economy. For LaBeouf, Money Never Sleeps represented the chance to break free from the more juvenile action parts that have filled his résumé in recent years. ”He felt that this was going to be his first real adult role, and that investing himself in it fully was the only way he could feel confident that he could do it,” says Mulligan, who happens to be LaBeouf’s love interest off screen as well as on. ”His research was unbelievable. He’ll talk your ear off about stocks and finance.” In fact, with Douglas playing a supporting role this time, LaBeouf is the movie’s true lead. And the young star clearly relished the opportunity. ”He was literally there every day before the grips,” Mulligan reports.

Much of the plot centers on the relationship between LaBeouf and Brolin, who evolve from colleagues into competitors. In one intense sequence, the pair race motorcycles in upstate New York. ”I was there that day watching it happen,” Mulligan says. ”I wish I hadn’t been. They turned into little kids the minute they saw the motorbikes, so everyone was a bit worried they were going to get too excited.”

Money Never Sleeps received mostly positive reviews at its Cannes premiere in May, though many critics objected to an ending deemed somewhat pat (a Twentieth Century Fox spokeswoman says Stone has fine-tuned the film since the festival). Stone, who recently apologized after referring to ”Jewish domination of the media” in an interview with London’s Sunday Times, is braced for a less-than-unanimous response in the press. ”The reactions are going to be mixed,” he predicts. ”They always are with me, generally speaking, because there are people who have a grudge that they’ve been carrying for years. They hated JFK, maybe, or something.”

But it’s hard to escape the movie’s relevance. And Brolin hopes audiences will ask questions about the ethics of the banking industry. ”How much is enough?” he asks. ”There used to be a ceiling. Now there’s no ceiling.” One of the film’s most interesting life-imitates-art moments may be the cameo from Charlie Sheen, reprising his role as Gekko protégé Bud Fox from the original film. This time around, prime-time TV’s highest-paid actor plays the former working-class upstart as a massively wealthy success story. ”There’s a sadness to that character too, because in the end he becomes a bit of a money lover,” says Stone. ”The ironies are implicit.”

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