“We don’t do gotcha journalism here,” says TV executive producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) near the beginning of Money Monster, before wearily adding, “We don’t do journalism, period.”
Taking Network and Dog Day Afternoon as reference points, the new film by Jodie Foster uses a straightforward thriller format to examine the loss of trust between the powerful, the powerless and the media in recent times. It’s less mischievous about it than Adam McKay’s The Big Short, which sustained its articulate rage about the financial crisis to devastating comedic effect, but as the above line suggests, it’s also accordingly more multiplex-friendly in its satirical leanings.
Money Monster is the live cable show presented by financial guru Lee Gates (George Clooney), who pitches himself as an entertainer rather than a journalist, much to Patty’s frustration. For instance, Lee is reporting on the inexplicable crash of IBIS Clear Capital’s stock in the last 24 hours, losing investors $800 million. Lee named the stock as one of his weekly ‘tips of the millennium’ and when IBIS CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) doesn’t make himself available for a promised interview, the host simply offers platitudes.
That’s not enough for Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), who lost all of his savings following Lee’s tip and is on his way to interrupt the live broadcast. Live on TV, he forces Lee to put on a bomb vest at gunpoint. With his finger on the trigger and the world glued to their screens, Kyle interrogates Lee about how and why he lost his money, while Patty works to direct the hostage crisis from her booth.
On the surface, at least, Money Monster appears to be a nuts-and-bolts hostage thriller and as we’ve observed in the past, there’s something to be said for a good, lean 90 minute movie. It’s ideal Friday night at the cinema fare, but even in its straightforwardness, Foster brings enough to this to make sure it doesn’t feel throwaway or trite.
For starters, although the film doesn’t necessarily take place in real time, it flows as if it does, spinning numerous different plates with Patty at the hub. Like Lee’s EP, Foster marshals the action in the studio and the various machinations of both the police who are trying to infiltrate the studio and the back-room recriminations at IBIS (principally between a besieged Caitriona Balfe and a slimy Dennis Boutsikaris) and still manages to make it all feel immediate.
The standout performer among the cast is O’Connell, whose explosive physicality once again yields endlessly watchable results. Clooney looks at home on a set, but his Lee is believably flapped by Kyle’s righteous anger and O’Connell lends gravitas to a character that could easily have descended into histrionics for the camera. Just as Roberts absurdly directs a hostage cameraman to get a better angle on the gunman, so Foster ratchets up the tension from behind the other cameras.
Intense as it is, it’s also a lot funnier than you would probably expect. While the gravity of the crisis is always taken seriously, there’s a lot of levity, coming naturally out of character rather than giving us opportunities to laugh in between the more serious parts. Clooney’s garish showmanship is a highlight, as are some of Roberts’ snippy instructions through his earpiece, but most of the comic relief is shouldered by Christopher Denham as Ron, a junior producer and whipping boy who has a terrible day even on the fringes of the action.
If it’s old fashioned in any respect, it is chiefly that the lack of tangible evidence and accountability in the modern financial age also informs the way in which the characters deal with the drama. As is repeated throughout the film, Camby (played in an odious and slappable turn by West) and his ilk are able to shelter behind the obscurity of their practices, because if it’s hard to understand what they did wrong, then they don’t necessarily have to admit that they did wrong.
In one scene, Giancarlo Esposito’s exasperated police captain dresses down his officers after they outline a plan in which they are willing to bet on “an 80% chance of an 80% chance” that there will be no casualties. You can’t make that kind of bet when you’re in the police, but you can if you’re an investment banker, and Foster conveys with a small character beat what McKay did with a whole collateralised debt organisation lecture by Selena Gomez.
The economy of storytelling says it all and in fact, Foster and screenwriters Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden seem to have been very keen to subvert expectations whenever possible, refusing to offer any clear cut answers to its socio-economic concerns. When one declaration by Lee to the viewing public feels a little too cloying, he is quickly slapped down. When the police bring in someone Kyle knows to reason with him, it doesn’t go nearly as well as they’d planned.
This is mostly undone in the rather more ridiculous third act, which takes in a crowd of New Yorkers and a pair of Icelandic hackers on the way to a final confrontation. This part of the movie has more in common with 1998’s The Negotiator than with those 1970s touchstones, but the sheer conviction of all involved ensures that it doesn’t completely lose its nerve.
Money Monster‘s shallow and economical approach works out just fine, but like the show after which it’s named, this does mean that the film is more entertaining than it is either informative or understanding about its subject. What solutions it does offer are rhetorical, but the subversive tone and lack of wish fulfilment makes this a more bracing and memorable watch than pure rhetoric would suggest. Even when it stretches plausibility later on, it dramatises valid concerns about the media with enjoyable sincerity.
Money Monster is in UK cinemas now.
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