On a certain level, ‘Money Monster’ is a high-concept thriller like Hollywood used to make all the time. You know the type – take an easily marketable premise that can be condensed into a trailer (or even better, a poster), cast a couple movie stars, throw in some one-liners, and you’ve got yourself a money maker. As big, dumb, glossy entertainment, the movie mostly works.
However, the script also attempts to toss in some social commentary about the recent economic collapse and white collar crime. This leaves it with an awkward seesaw between stupid genre fluff and socially conscious message-making that never quite gels. Even so, the movie is kind of fun and the weird dichotomy between director Jodie Foster’s desire to entertain and her attempt to say something politically relevant brings a certain amount of silly entertainment all its own, accidental and otherwise.
George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, a flashy, self-absorbed and gently idiotic host of a stock market tip show that’s more about mugging pizzazz (it typically opens with hip-hop dancers, because why not?) and furthering the interest of corporate sponsors than helping real people invest their money. Julia Roberts plays Patty Fenn, the show’s director and voice of reason in her host’s earpiece. They start the day setting up a show centered on an interview with a representative of a company that just dropped $800 million under shady circumstances. Then things take an unexpected twist when an angry young man named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) shows up on the live broadcast with a gun. He straps a bomb to Gates and demands that the show stay on the air until he gets actual answers about how the company lost his entire savings. Tensions rise as the studio turns into a hostage situation, the cops (led by the always welcome Giancarlo Esposito) hunt for a solution, and Patty’s team struggles to track down the corrupt CEO (Dominic West) responsible for all the troubles. Oh boy! Things are about to get messy.
Essentially, ‘Money Monster’ is a dumb thriller with pretensions of social relevance thanks to some fairly obvious Wall Street crime commentary. However, it’s kind of entertaining and far better made than it should be. Jodie Foster might not have a beloved film to her name as a director (though ‘Home for the Holidays’ is pretty damn underrated), but she has always shown talent behind the camera and seems to get better each time out. Here, she handles all the basic suspense beats well, delivering stylishly effective work without ever devolving into flashy overkill. The action is tightly contained and thankfully delivered with a tongue buried deep in its cheek. Foster knows she’s peddling in cliché and convention and she delights in winking at viewers and camping it up to enhance entertainment value. At times, the movie offers high stakes suspense, at other times slapstick comedy. At no time is ‘Money Monster’ a particularly strong application of either tone, but something about shoving the two together so recklessly offers fun all its own. There’s an irony in play that helps temper the few flashes of overblown sincerity.
Predictably, the performances are strong, particularly from Clooney delivering one of his charmingly dickish doofuses. He’s never quite redeemed as a character as he grows a conscience because he’s just too dumb to fully change, but that’s a deliberate choice from Clooney and Foster. Jack O’Connell brings some surprising depth and inner tragedy to his role that somehow grounds him as a human amidst a sea of cartoons. (Ditto Emily Meade, who briefly steals away the whole movie as his girlfriend in a quick cameo.)
Julia Roberts is fine, but it’s a shame Foster didn’t play the director character herself to add in another in-joke. The rest of the cast do what they can in perfunctory roles to fill out the genre playbook with some (like Giancarlo “Incapable of a Bad Performance” Esposito) doing better than others (like Dominic “Sometimes I Just Can’t Handle an American Accent” West). More than anything else, it’s clear that everyone on screen had fun, with Foster likely having the most fun off camera.
Indeed, the movie works so well as a sometimes serious but mostly self-parodic thriller that it’s a shame whenever Foster and her screenwriters crowbar in some “Wall Street Sucks!” sentiments. Not that there’s anything wrong with aspiring for subtext in a thriller, or that anything Foster slips into the movie is politically inappropriate, but that material doesn’t quite fit the tone of ‘Money Monster’. It’s tough to make a statement in a genre yarn that doesn’t take itself seriously, unless that’s part of the satire. Whenever ‘Money Monster’ attempts a little righteous indignation, it falls flat and either pops the bubble of suspense or spoils all the campy irony elsewhere. It makes ‘Money Monster’ feel a bit uneven and loopy when a movie like this should really just be about pure candy entertainment without vegetables (or at least serve up its commentary with similar irreverence like Paul Verhoeven pulled off in ‘RoboCop’ and ‘Starship Troopers’).
So, the movie is a bit of a mess, but at least it’s a fun mess that’s never boring, even when it flies off the rails. ‘Money Monster’ won’t be a big hit or even a critical favorite, but it should entertain anyone tickled by its high concept conceit. Realistically, that’s all this sort of glossy studio flick needs to accomplish.