As an "I'm mad as hell" screed against the oversight-free excesses of Wall Street bankers, director Jodie Foster's Money Monster certainly arrives at the right historical moment to tap into the same "throw the bums out" exasperation that's helped turn Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign from a longshot into a contender. Director Adam McKay made a similar deep-dive last year in the riveting, angry-making The Big Short, one of my favorites of the year, and there was the potential to do something in a similar vein here.
Unfortunately, Money Monster goes for the low-hanging fruit offered up by being a by-the-numbers potboiler. The kind that will get the audience wound up enough to stay engaged for the hundred minute runtime, but not think about it much past the time they leave the theater. As a result, despite Foster's best efforts to squeeze tension out of the central conflict, it's a tonal mishmash that can't settle on what it's trying to say, and it squanders a lot of the goodwill generated by the tremendous cast headed up by George Clooney and Julia Roberts.
Clooney, always a charismatic and likable presence even as he's gotten older and broken out of the traditional leading man box, plays Lee Gates, the preening, showboat star of Money Monster, an investment show in the vein of Jim Cramer's Mad Money. And in much the same way Cramer became the personification of all that's unholy in the wake of the collapse of 2008 (especially by folks like Jon Stewart, who practically made a piñata out of the guy), the film posits a scenario where a working class investor who followed Gates' advice takes the host hostage in search of restitution for his lost savings.
As you'd expect, things quickly escalate from there. While Gates is trying to keep himself alive, he forms an unlikely bond with his captor, Kyle Budwell (Unbroken's Jack O'Connell). Meanwhile, it's up to his producer Patty Fenn (Roberts, re-teaming with Clooney for the first time since the Ocean's series) to keep the host alive while holding the police at bay (as led by Giancarlo Esposito) and conducting an investigation of the corrupt CEO (Dominic West) who's behind it all. There's a compelling idea there, no doubt, but the script by Alan Di Fiore & Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden feels uncertain of how to resolve the character drama it puts in place, which is a shame, given the serious issues at play.
Part of the problem is in how the movie starts out by showing us Clooney's Gates in all his narcissistic glory, the consummate showman (he comes out for each show accompanied by scantily-clad dancers) who's utterly removed from the day-to-day concerns of the everyman. He's just plain unlikeable but, per the dictates of this kind of plot, he has to have some kind of a redemption arc, and so makes a sudden turn from self-possession to selflessness that feels too abrupt to feel organic. Luckily for us and the movie, Clooney is a good enough actor that we can buy him as both permutations of the character, but it sure doesn't make the movement go down any easier.
In some ways this plays a lot like the 2002 Denzel Washington vehicle John Q, which did for the health care system what this one does to Wall Street. It's mostly content to safely play within the lines without upsetting the applecart too badly as far as the broken financial system and who's gaming it. This isn't really meant to be introspective on that level. Instead, anchored by Clooney's turn from roguish to righteous, it's popcorn catharsis that lets the audience see the bad guys hoisted by their petard, however briefly, while cheering from the sidelines. And on that level, Money Monster is a watchable -- if entirely forgettable -- investment of a few hours. C+
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