A film review by Craig J. Koban May 21, 2016

MONEY MONSTER jj
½

2016, R, 98 mins.

 

George Clooney as Lee Gates  /  Caitriona Balfe as Diane Lester  /  Jack O'Connell as Kyle Budwell  /  Julia Roberts as Patty Fenn  /  Olivia Luccardi as Arlene  /  Dominic West as Walt Camby  /  Giancarlo Esposito as Captain Marcus Powell  /  Emily Meade as Molly

Directed by Jodie Foster  /  Written by Alan DiFiorema and Jim Kouf

MONEY MONSTER is an incredibly frustrating film to sit through.  

It’s all the more frustrating considering that it stars multiple Academy Award nominated and winning actors and is directed by Jodie Foster, no stranger to Oscar glory herself.  The talent in this thriller is enough to get any viewer on board, not to mention that the film deals with some highly relevant themes that tap into our collective fears regarding corporate and socioeconomic evil.  There are so many positives going into MONEY MONSTER that it’s an absolute shame that this film utterly implodes under the weight of its illogical narrative.  I’ve never seen a film begin with so much unbridled promise only to then devolve into silly implausibility in its last 20 minutes like MONEY MONSTER does.

That’s a shame, because Foster has gathered together the likes of Hollywood A-listers like George Clooney and Julia Roberts, not to mention strong up-and-coming actors like Jack O’Connell (UNBROKEN and 71) into the fray.  Beyond that, the film tries, as much as it can, to be a scathing indictment of duplicitous Wall Street business practices that make 99 per cent of the country perpetually poor with the remaining one per cent reaping all of the benefits.  MONEY MONSTER also positions itself as a fairly savvy portrait of the modern network newsroom, creating a fly-on-the-wall portrait of what it takes to put a live show on the air.  All in all, Foster’s film is an unusual, but interesting hybrid of NETWORK, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, and the more recent THE BIG SHORT, but where her film falls ultimately and disappointingly short is on thoughtful commentary, not to mention that the screenplay’s outlandish machinations pretty much betray its very topical themes.

 

 

Clooney, though, is impeccably well cast here as a Lee Gates, a rather flamboyantly arrogant host of a popular financial news show called Money Monster, a live program featuring him dispensing daily stock picks with a dizzying array of sound effects, info banners, and sometimes bizarre costumes and song and dance numbers with backup dancers.  Lee is one of those smug a-holes that knows he’s a smug a-hole, which makes him a particularly large handful for his long-time producer Patty (an equally well cast Roberts), who basically serves the role as behind-the-scenes quarterback to everything Lee does on the show, ensuring that the program runs smoothly and efficiently…no matter what preposterous thing Lee does or says.  Despite Lee’s aggressively loud mouthed and in-your-face approach to unleashing daily financial wisdom, he’s respected and watched by many.

Lee's and Patty’s working lives change forever when a mysterious deliveryman arrives on their set during a live broadcast.  Patty initially believes that this is the product of poor security and a hopelessly naïve courier greenhorn that doesn’t know what he’s doing.  Unfortunately, within seconds of arriving on set the man whips out a gun and points it right at Lee’s head, immediately tipping off everyone in front of and behind the camera that this guy is no mere delivery man.  His name is Kyle (O’Connell) and he quickly reveals that he also has a suicide vest laden with C4, which he forces the deeply distressed Lee to wear.  Kyle makes his motives abundantly clear to all: he wants Lee to explain why he recommended (on a previous show) investing heavily into Ibis Clear Capital as a “sure thing.”  Kyle apparently put his family’s life savings ($64,000) into Ibis, only to discover to his horror that the company’s stock horrendously plummeted overnight…without any rational explanation being given by the CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West).  Kyle and millions of Americans lost everything because of Lee’s stock tip, leaving Kyle desperately wanting answers on live TV…with Lee’s life hanging in the balance.

As mentioned, the cast of MONEY MONSTER is uniformly superb and work so well off of one another.  Clooney’s unparalleled charisma as an established movie star lends itself well to playing the slick and smarmy pundit.  Even though he has very few literal face-to-face scenes with his co-star, his interplay with Roberts' Patty has an effortless chemistry; they feel like a completely authentic TV show host/producer tandem.  Roberts perhaps has the most thankless job of any of the actors, seeing as she has to be a figure of calm and headstrong authority while spending most of the film sitting in a darkened control room.  O’Connell brings the requisite amount of hostile intensity, wounded vulnerability, and moral confusion to his role as hijacker that feels like he has been royally screwed (and he has), but there are times when even the tremendously assured British actor struggles a bit with a thick New Yawker accent.

MONEY MONSTER creates such an overwhelming sensation of newsroom verisimilitude early on that it all but depressingly unravels when Kyle’s hostage plan plays out, which careens down one inane development and twist after another.  The film strains even modest credulity at times.  It’s never truly plausible, for example, that a lone nut like Kyle would be able to so easily access the set of a show like Money Monster, let alone make it through the viewfinder of network security officials.  He pretty much just strolls on in without much of a fuss.  To show an even greater lack of respect for the story’s would-be provocative themes and ideas, the manner that MONEY MONSTER sabotages realism completely in its final act is positively headshaking.  Without giving too much away, Kyle’s hostage drama – broadcasted live to the masses – eventually spills out into the streets of Manhattan, and it becomes increasingly difficult to take the events seriously at all.  As the film egregiously rushes towards an inevitable climax with the Ibis CEO it’s more of a movie manufactured moment than one that feels dramatically convincing.  In the end, nonsensical movie characters that behave using stupid movie logic and not earthbound logic populate Foster’s movie. 

What is MONEY MONSTER really trying to say as well?  It has so much that it wants to get off of its chest regarding financial malfeasance on a drastic, unchecked scale, scornful Wall Street business dealings, mental illness, the dangers of playing fast and loose with the modern stock market, and so forth.  Mournfully, the interminable possibilities for intelligent commentary here are all but null and void, seeing as the whole attack on American capitalism run afoul is essentially reduced down to painting the Ibis CEO as a one-note and simplistically rendered villain that’s driven purely by individual greed.  Even though the whole system, so to speak, fostered a climate for him to exert his diabolical plans to rob people of their money, MONEY MONSTER essentially becomes less a widespread and stinging attack of a corrupt system and more about the chicanery of a solitary man.  Of course, Kyle (who began the film as a psychopathic loose cannon) is unavoidably set up as a martyr-like hero in all of this.  The black and white portrayal of all of the parties and issues here ends up being kind of laughable.

It pains me to say this, but I’m really starting to think that Foster is perhaps a far better actress than she is a filmmaker.  Recent efforts like the strangely wrongheaded THE BEAVER in 2011 and now MONEY MONSTER kind of proves that sentiment.  She remains one of the pre-eminent actresses of her generation, a career typified by shrewd project choices that echoes her intelligence as a performer.  She’s a remarkably smart woman that surrounds herself by equally smart performers in MONEY MONSTER, but her latest directorial effort is simply not smart at all.  The film’s moral rage is palpable and its timely themes are thought provoking, but the whole enterprise is heavy handed, wildly uneven, and lacks keen insight into its subject matter.    

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