If the global financial crisis had an upside, it’s that it gave us another sub-category of unambiguously evil movie villains. Zombies and Nazis and Nazi zombies are pretty played-out. And they aren’t close enough to home. If you want your heroes to splatter the mush-faced undead hordes or topple the Third Reich, you have to spend a fortune on special effects and tasteful Hugo Boss uniforms. You need post-apocalyptic landscapes and wobbly German accents. It’s a lot of work. But Wall Street bankers are easy. They already look like movie stars.
The star in Money Monster is George Clooney. His character, Lee Gates, isn’t quite a banker himself, but as a prancing financial guru on a live network investment show he’s the next worst thing. Gates pimps a sure-thing stock that inexplicably tanks overnight, losing investors $800 million, including Jack O’Connell’s Kyle Budwell, a regular working schmuck who gambled his nest egg on the tip. The company that sank, IBIS Clear Capital, blames a glitch in a trading algorithm. Budwell blames Gates, and so during a live broadcast he forces him into an explosive vest at gunpoint and demands answers. He doesn’t understand how anyone can just lose that much money, which I think is a reasonable point. O’Connell gives Budwell a thick outer borough accent, but he’s really the voice of everyone who walked into their bank between 2008 and 2012 to be told that their savings or pensions weren’t there anymore.
That’s one of the problems with Money Monster, which Jodie Foster directs from a screenplay that stitches together the off-cuts of money-minded liberal satires like Network, The Big Short and Dog Day Afternoon. It’s a movie that wants to skewer the 1% by making us believe the 10% are on our side, which is a tough sell for any filmmaker, and might well be beyond Foster. You can tell Money Monster wants to be about something, and not just superficially. But you can’t ever tell what. Sometimes the target seems to be swaggering cartoon villains like Dominic West’s Walt Camby, the IBIS CEO who Gates and his long-suffering director, Patty (Julia Roberts), spend the tense first hour of the movie trying to track down. Just as often Money Monster wants to sneer at Clooney and the blind-eye-turning media machine that floats his razzmatazz-filled live show on blue-collar losses. Occasionally it even seems to be laughing at people like Kyle, who dump their life savings on a slice of the pie they’re naïve enough to believe they’re entitled to. These are worthy themes that are too muddled to feel like they’re being explored, and worthy targets whom Foster’s crude directorial tools can’t muster any audience sympathy for.
Which is a shame, because the shape Money Monster takes in its first two acts is that of a slick and efficient thriller which doesn’t feel hamstrung by its need to proselytise. The characters are arch, but they’re made compelling by strong performances, especially the panicked and sweaty one O’Connell delivers, who despite the fact he’s a co-star in a Hollywood movie still seems like an appropriate mouthpiece for the working-class (he’s a Derby County fan, after all). Events unfold in real-time, which is a gimmick that feels warranted for as long as the movie isn’t trying to say or do too much. All Money Monster’s best moments occur in that claustrophobic TV studio: a great one is when Kyle tells Lee how much he lost ($60,000) and Clooney incredulously rolls his eyes at such a pittance; another, and perhaps the best, is when Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend is given a mic and a camera to talk him down, and then furiously, savagely berates him on national television. This is the closest the movie comes to having some kind of a point, or at least doing something interestingly unusual with the format.
It’s the third act where things start to fall apart, both in a lengthy detour outdoors which goes on at least ten minutes too long, and in the character writing, which tries to steer everyone’s respective arcs towards some kind of satisfying payoff but just ends up feeling wildly inconsistent. In particular, we’re supposed to buy into a kinship between Lee and Kyle which feels totally unearned, partly because it comes out of nowhere, but mostly because both of them are given at least two different personalities which they just seem to flit between without warning. Lee is smug and insincere but then he’s sad and lonely; Kyle is somehow a criminal mastermind and an idiot. And these aren’t logical progressions of the characters or conclusions that we reach about them, they are literally personalities that they randomly inhabit from one scene to the next. The only person unaffected by this seems to be Julia Roberts, whose Patty is consistently smart and witty all the way through. You root for her in no small part because she seems to be legitimately sick of Lee’s bullshit, and Roberts manages to recapture a lot of the love/hate smoulder with Clooney that we’ve seen before in the Ocean’s movies.
Ultimately a strong cast and a compelling first act aren’t enough to lend Money Monster any kind of long-term value; the script is too creaky to support a great thriller, and it’s too toothless in its politics to be memorable as a so-called “message movie”. It isn’t bad, or at least it isn’t bad for its entirety, but it isn’t reliably good either. It’s just okay. And I wish I had something more interesting to say than that, or at least a good joke to finish with, but whatever. Money Monster sells the audience a little bit short.
Oh. Found a joke after all.
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