With its immediately obvious combination of Dog Day Afternoon and Network, Money Monster is probably meant to usher in the next wave of post-bubble screeds against the financial elite. But, while it’s constantly picking at the boogeymen of Wall Street, Jodie Foster’s film feels too hopelessly broad, not an acute shock to the system a movie like this should be today.
George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, a Jim Kramer-style egomaniac who’s barely kept on the leash by Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), a long-time producer of his show, Money Monster. After years together, Fenn and Gates have the cannibalized shorthand of an old married couple, communicating everything with terse exposition and a safe word, “Sacagawea.” Gates preys daily on the working class with proclamations about how to make money rain from the sky, but he’s finally put on trial when a disgruntled viewer, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), loses his life savings based on Gates’ advice, and proceeds to hold the entire TV station hostage until Gates atones.
Taking place in real-time, Money Monster divides its duration between Gates and Budwell’s on-set tension, the producer’s booth, a covert police operation to extract the hostages, random bystanders watching the stand-off, and a global conspiracy involving a shady company—IBIS—which inexplicably lost $800 million over night thanks to a computer glitch. Juggling all of these scenarios, Money Monster could go in just as many tonal directions, and in many ways it does. Early on, Foster seems like she might have the knives out for these characters, especially after she finds a way to undermine a potentially triumphant moment (complete with a mounting string climax and everything). Shortly after, a routine scene where a significant other tries to talk sense into Budwell transforms into a unflinching, foul-mouthed reaming.
Moments like these pile on the sadism, unafraid to humiliate its leads, contextualizing them as two people with nothing to lose. O’Connell, especially, has become adept in his still-new career at shifting deftly between rabid anger and shrunken emasculation. For a while, Foster also knows how to subvert Clooney’s usual smarm in political contexts, reversing the stentorian grace of his voice into something defeated and toxically narcissistic. But Money Monster is less about probing into the nature of political grandstanding than offering a showcase for the type of smug lecture that’s become associated with politically engaged actors like Clooney.
It’s especially disappointing in light of Foster’s last film, The Beaver, a messy exercise in celebrity exorcism that nonetheless felt deeply personal. Money Monster again relies on an understanding of the public personas of its lead players, but it never moves beyond surface, tabloid-accessible perception.
Foster and cinematographer Matthew Libatique build a decent facsimile of a television studio, articulating the machinations of the camerawork, and drawing attention to placement of audio equipment. The best moments of the film reinforce the context of the television studio as Fenn and Gates bicker back and forth on their earpiece, and she begins to actively direct the hostage situation. In a moment reminiscent of Nightcrawler, Fenn’s initial reaction when a gunman enters the set is less panic than “Let’s see what happens.” And there’s a caustically funny aspect to Fenn saying things like, “Can you move over a few feet for better lighting?”
In its second half, though, Money Monster nearly completely discards its acidic cynicism to push the plot forward care of some truly goofy contrivances. Every narrative detail involving South Africa is laughably underdeveloped, even as it becomes the lynchpin for the entire conspiracy storyline, and too many plot details revolve around character beats which are either unearned or non-sensical. It’s clear the script is built on a faulty foundation.
Even when the film seems aware of the hypocrisy of its characters, poking holes in Gates’ and Budwell’s crusades for truth as opportunistic and shallow, the movie bulldozes right through those misgivings. Money Monster wants to offer us a risky look into the flames rising up around us in this corrupt economy, but it hits with the equivalent of a “kick me” sign rather than a firebomb.
Director: Jodie Foster
Writers: Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Caitriona Balfe, Dominic West, Giancarlo Esposito
Release Date: May 13, 2016