Silver Screen: Money Monster *1/2
Director Jodie Foster delivers a muddled critique of the American financial system in the guise of a not-very-thrilling thriller in Money Monster, an artless finger wag of a movie that scolds and disrespects its audience. The fact that Foster and screenwriters Jamie Linden, Jim Kouf, and Alan DiFiore have successfully identified a genuine problem doesn’t inherently validate this maladroit bit of agitprop.
To quote a superior character from a much, much better movie: “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.”
Money Monster stars George Clooney as Lee Gates, a flashy TV financial guru in the Jim Cramer mold. Cramer’s shrill, gimmicky Mad Money is the clear model for Lee’s program, which gives the movie its title.
The first sign of trouble for the filmgoer is Foster’s cringe-inducing parody of Cramer’s shtick, which puts poor George in a golden tophat and dollar-sign bling (or, alternately, a boxer’s robe and gloves) to hip-hop dance with a pair of Lemonade-ready backup performers. No one involved seems to have realized that Clooney making fun of someone who would do such a thing still requires Clooney to actually do the thing, and no amount of self-awareness can render it less painful. (Bullworth, from 1998, had a similar problem, pitting the theoretically funny absurdity of Warren Beatty rapping against the awful reality of Warren Beatty rapping.)
A gag as simple as “A white guy doing black-guy stuff!” in 2016 is about as blunt and uncreative as it gets, but Foster applies an only slightly more delicate touch to the film’s social critique.
The canary in the gold mine is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a blue-collar schlub who lost his life savings on one of Lee’s hyperbolic stock tips. Kyle bursts into a taping of Money Monster with a gun and takes Lee hostage live on the air. He wants Lee to atone for his sins by admitting to his collusion in a rigged financial system and explaining how such a powerful company could lose $600 million in shareholder funds in one day.
Lee’s only hope is his steadfast producer Patty (Julia Roberts), who remains in the booth at the helm of the broadcast. It falls upon her to keep the volatile gunman calm, coordinate with the police (led by Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito), and solve the mystery of the missing stock money using her journalistic know-how. If Rene Russo’s craven character in Nightcrawler is a distorted caricature of the TV producer, surely Patty is her idealized opposite, a steady beacon of integrity whose unflappability is presented as a near superpower.
Roberts has the presence to pull it off. Patty is the best part of a movie that does gin up a bit of suspense by setting the action in real time. As a thriller it’s boilerplate stuff, with the obligatory shots of dudes in SWAT gear jogging into position, anonymous snipers poised on rooftops to solve/create plot problems, and a simmering B-story you just know will tie in somehow.
The perfunctory genre trappings are just the spoonful of sugar that’s supposed to help the message go down. Money Monster is far more invested in its real villain, the nefarious mogul Walt Camby, played by The Wire’s Dominic West. Camby is given not a single identifying personality trait beyond “evil rich guy” and remains offscreen for the vast majority of the film, but it’s his swindling of the public via an alleged error in his high-speed trading outfit’s algorithm that occupies the second half of the film.
The simplification here is stupefying. Money Monster wants to issue some dire warning about a system it either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t trust the viewer to understand. In The Big Short, Adam McKay turned a grownup description of the same subject into a crackling comedy, while here the overcomplicated machinations of a legal but corrupt financial system are reduced to “this one guy changed a formula and stole a bunch of cash.”
Money Monster’s well-intended blundering would be more forgivable if it didn’t hold its audience in such contempt. O’Connell is a decent actor, but he’s runty and rodential as Kyle, speaker for the bilked. Kyle speaks with some kind of apostrophe-laden accent endemic only to the blue-collared. He’s angry to the point of incoherence, and unable to do anything but panic or screw up. Money Monster might better articulate its case if the person voicing said critique wasn’t so pathetic and easily dismissible.
Then consider all the background characters in the film, from the gung-ho cops to the stupidly smiling TV viewers to the throngs of hooting morons who line police-barricaded streets to get a closer look at a possible shootout. When a gun-toting nut with a pistol pressed to Lee’s back marches him down the street, guys in suits wave and holler and... well, they do more hip-hop dancing, if you can believe it.
It’s an awfully cynical take that reduces the very same victims of this egregious financial system to grunting, snorting savages. If Foster and company really think the general public— and their intended audience— is composed of such slavering morons, why bother being indignant about the rampant corruption in the system at all? Aren’t they getting, if not what they deserve, then what’s inevitable?
Say what you will about the delusional Ayn Randian über-capitalist philosophy espoused by corporate conservatives, but at least it doesn’t feign to care about the little people.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.