When it’s not recycling old material, Hollywood is always looking for subject matter that is relevant and touches on subject matter that has been in the news recently. They come in waves. A slew of war films come out at the tail end of a war or after it has concluded. It may not be as timely as a “ripped from the headlines” story of Law & Order, but they are usually commentary from the writer and/or director who have the benefit of looking back and casting a critical eye on the situation with a measure of perspective that was not possible in the moment. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2007 and the Occupy Wall Street movement, and (more timely) the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign firmly planted against Wall Street and corruption comes Money Monster, directed by Jodie Foster and starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Jack O’Connell.
Lee Gates (Clooney) is the host of Money Monster, a outrageous TV show about the stock market in the vein of Jim Cramer’s Mad Money on CNBC. During his Friday show, the last one with his longtime producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), a man walks onto the set during the live taping and brandishes a pistol. This man, Kyle Budwell (O’Connell), having lost his life savings when he poured it all into an investment that Gates said was a sure thing, takes the set hostage and straps an explosive vest to Lee and a deadman’s trigger in his hand. He also wants answers from the company that lost he and many other investors $800 million dollars in one day, IBIS and the company’s owner Walt Camby (Dominic West), who was supposed to be on Lee’s show that day. IBIS chalked it up to a glitch, but that is little comfort to Kyle, who believes the system is rigged and that nobody is asking the right questions about how $800 million disappears and no one bats an eye. The hostage situation sends Lee, Patty, and IBIS CCO Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) scrambling for answers as the police, led by the Captain Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) try to figure out a way to defuse the situation and millions of people tune in on live television.
The premise is interesting enough, and it is a dramatic thriller take on the growing divide between Main Street and Wall Street, but it does not rise to the level of several dramas that have come out in the last few years that exceled in exploring this theme of corporate greed. However, where recent films like The Big Short, Wolf of Wall Street, and Margin Call have dealt with various aspects of the greed and corruption on Wall Street from a insider perspective, Money Monster does place it on the common man with a character like Kyle, making it a bit more personal and relatable for the 99 percenters.
Even still, it occasionally goes too far and dips into Occupy Wall Street fantasy fulfillment where the common man is taking the fight to the 1% and rubbing their nose in the crap they have been passing off to the rest of the country. Foster does her best to weave a compelling visual and narrative story to keep us engaged. The more that Lee interacts with Kyle he comes to take his side more and more; initially because of self-preservation because Kyle is prepared to die for the answers he seeks, while Lee wants to live, but later on because the questions and answers aren’t adding up to him either.
There story expands to include characters from China, South Africa, and Iceland who get drawn into the scope of looking for answers to save the lives of the people Kyle has taken hostage. Occasional vignettes from these locations are sprinkled into story, along with the police trying to take control of the situation, Diane back at IBIS headquarters bumping up against corporate red tape while asking questions, and people at bars and various places watching things unfold on television.
The film suffers quite a bit whenever the scope of the film is expanded. It is at its best when it is more focused on the three main players in Clooney, Roberts, and O’Connell. Clooney and Roberts having worked together on the Ocean’s films together, have a natural familiarity and rhythm together on screen that they easily slide into. They feel like a on-camera personality and show producer who have worked together for a long time and work as much off of instinct as anything else. The film plays their relationship as almost completely platonic, though there are some moments where the film possibly hints at more or just that Lee realizes how much he has taken her for granted and how he has not truly valued her contribution.
Clooney, in general is his usual charming self, but also gets to be a bit goofy in a way that he is rarely seen. The film even subverts the Clooney charm, in a key scene where he turns it on big time only to fall flat on his face. Clooney and O’Connell mostly play off of each other quite well too, with O’Connell’s Kyle being someone who wants to believe he is in control and smarter than he probably is, but is also desperate and hanging on by a thread. Like Lee, he has a moment that blows up in his face that goes horribly awry. These two failures make Lee and Kyle relate to each other. Unfortunately, the corporate side of the story involving IBIS is little more than a paint by numbers story of greed that doesn’t quite live up to the build-up that is baked into the plotting.
Money Monster is a film that isn’t going to bowl anyone over and doesn’t do anything new within its genre, but it is a good enough story to be watchable and probably is more enjoyable than it should be because of the three main leads in Clooney, Roberts, and O’Connell.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars