The previews for Jodie Foster's Money Monster make the film look like Network fused with a hostage-crisis movie. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, especially when George Clooney plays the outrageous anchor; Julia Robert plays the scared but resourceful control booth director, and Jack O’Connell is the guy with the gun. I was on board until the characters left the TV studio, at which point the trailer devolved into quick cuts between panicky banker-types and cops marching through Manhattan. “Great,” I thought, “They’re going to solve corporate corruption in ninety minutes.”
I went in guarded but ready to be swayed, and was rewarded for being adventurous. Money Monster is great—maybe not Captial “G” Great, but great in its own modest, left-field ways. This glossy, big-budget, big-issues drama is crowd-pleasing in form but thematically darker than its summer release date suggests. Foster’s movie is goofy and mixed-up, to be sure, but it’s not easily dismissed.
As Lee Gates, host of the titular, fictitious finance program, Clooney exudes his trademark smarm and charm. He’s a boozer and a scoundrel who drops stock tips by pounding a giant red button; drives home points with sound effects and B-roll; and struts onto set accompanied by hip-hop music and back-up dancers.
We open on a particularly gloomy day for worldwide markets: a major tech firm called IBIS, which Gates had endorsed as “safer than a savings account” four weeks earlier, crashed. Not surprisingly, CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) is nowhere to be found. While filming the live broadcast, an angry young man named Kyle (O’Connell) takes over the studio, armed with a gun and two explosives-lined vests—one for Gates and one for Camby, who was scheduled to appear. Kyle had dumped his life savings into IBIS, and demands restitution for himself and everyone else who’s been screwed by what the news reports as a “glitch” in the company’s high-speed-trading algorithm.
From here, the film begins down every road you’d expect, introducing the no-nonsense police captain (Giancarlo Esposito) who’s managing a tactical team; opening the door to spiritual redemption for the shallow and self-obsessed Gates; and delving into the elaborate techno-conspiracy that Kyle has inadvertently stumbled upon. Though Money Monster is about numbers, it’s hardly by-the-numbers. Foster and screenwriters Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf take several unexpected detours into humor that keep the conventions from getting stale.
Not all the avenues are smooth. From a flaccid recurring joke about erectile-dysfunction cream to a third-act reveal that turns the hostage drama into a reluctant-buddies misadventure, there are moments here that would have been better served by a bit more genre convention and less Michael Bay-style, cheap-seats sensibilities. Luckily, most of the risks pay off. Gates’ impassioned plea to his audience to help inflate IBIS’s stock back to viability has a hell of a capper, and the police captain’s ploy to talk Kyle down by connecting him to his pregnant girlfriend (Emily Meade) goes south in ways that only psychics will see coming.
Money Monster’s humor is as dark as it is unexpected, enlivening the hostage drama's more played-out elements, and forming a sugary coating around the screenplay's bitter social-consciousness pill. Foster and company don't solve the financial crisis, but they lay it bear in broad strokes: with global currency having morphed from representations of tangible things into lightning-fast ones and zeroes that no one can really keep track of, the economy is ripe for manipulation. The so-called money gurus we see in the media are meant to offer hope, cover, and distraction. They serve the interests that own the companies that own them, and underserve the everyday investors who look to them for advice as to which input will best feed the machine.
Money Monster opened a day-and-a-half ago, and I haven't seen one news report of audiences angrily emerging from screenings, ready to burn the system to the ground. No boycotts, no petitions, no calls for throwing out the bums who collude with the real-life Walt Camby's to perpetuate the same great systems that gave us the stock bubble, the tech bubble, the housing bubble...
Of course there aren't. The truth is right there for everyone to see and understand, and in a far more accessible package than even The Big Short. Sadly, in forty years, we've gone from "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" to "Well, that sucks. Hey, did you see what Kanye just said?"
Like the show within the film, Money Monster is a transaction disguised as message-driven entertainment. Most people who buy this product will leave the theatre feeling good at the end because evil is kinda punished, and the stars they came to see are still as attractive and small-R relatable as ever. It's just funny and serious and well-put-together enough to ensure you won't ask for a refund in the first twenty minutes--at which point the theatre and the studio and the company that owns the studio* will whisk your hard-earned ones and zeroes into the digital ether, where they will ostensibly contribute to making more movies.
Some call this sinister. Some call it business. I call it great. Maybe even Capital "G" Great.
*And the company that owns the company that owns the studio.