You would think that Money Monster, Jodie Foster’s first directorial effort since 2011’s The Beaver, would be perfectly attuned to its moment, what with Bernie Sanders out there talking about the evils of Wall Street and a narcissistic billionaire one step closer to actually becoming president of these United States. But the movie feels strangely out of step and small, thanks to a script that never fully commits to its message and runs out of things for people to do, along with thin characters and inconsistent performances that never really bring them to life.
George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, the egotistical star of the title financial news and advice program. He blusters and shimmies, and shouts his way through what is essentially a fictional version of Jim Cramer’s Mad Money. As the movie opens, the big news is that investment heavyweight IBIS has lost some $800 million from its portfolio due to a software “glitch” – a story that Gates is all too happy to paper over thanks to his supposedly tight relationship with IBIS CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West).
In the control booth sits Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), Gates’ director who is on the way out and seemingly tired of the non-journalism that Gates does. It is Patty who remains calm and composed when a delivery man (Jack O’Connell) bursts onto the set, produces a gun and threatens to blow Gates’ head off if the cameras stop rolling. He drapes a vest laden with explosives around Gates’ chest, holding his thumb on the detonator, and says he’ll send everyone on the set to hell if he doesn’t get to tell his story.
That story, of course, is that the man – whose name is Kyle Budwell – lost whatever scant savings he had betting on IBIS thanks to Gates’ slick advice, and now he’s awakened to the fact that Wall Street is stealing everyone’s money and getting away with it. The first problem with Money Monster is O’Connell’s performance: the Unbroken star is miscast here as a not very bright man who can barely articulate his grievances and resorts to screaming in his not very convincing (and overly heightened) Brooklyn accent. He’s not a character, he’s a stereotype: the working man driven to snap by the Powers That Be, and neither the script nor the actor bring any nuance to a flat, flat role. You’re supposed to side with him but you end up wanting him to shut the hell up.
The other problem is that Money Monster’s themes and narrative beats seem so generic and rehashed. We’ve seen this kind of hostage drama done so much better in films like Dog Day Afternoon – which humanizes the crisis – and we had a much more powerful indictment of the financial sector just last year in the flawed yet still interesting The Big Short. Money Monster never goes all the way with that premise, and ends up turning into a simplistic ticking clock thriller in its final stretch with a generic bad guy and not the whole bloody system itself responsible for Kyle’s woes.
There is a half-hearted effort to indict the media as well, through the silliness and irresponsibility of Gates and his show, but that too never really breaks through. Clooney brings his usual presence and charisma to the show, although there’s a somewhat phoned-in aspect to it: his Gates is underwritten and his journey from superficial financial snake oil salesman to economic justice warrior never feels quite real. Strangely enough, the best performance is by Roberts; I say strangely because I have not cared for her work in recent years. But here she acts as the intelligent, cool center of the action, taking as much command as possible that she can of the situation and realistically juggling her staff’s safety with the larger issues at hand.
For a movie that should be both fired up and full of tension, Money Monster quickly becomes tedious. Once the film gets past its initial set-up and Kyle’s invasion of the studio – which does capture a sense of panic, chaos and shock – it goes nowhere for a long time as Gates and Kyle go through a rinse-and-repeat cycle of talking, shouting, and threatening. A few attempts to subvert the clichés this kind of movie often carries – getting Kyle’s girlfriend to talk to him, encouraging the TV audience to get involved in a righteous cause – are effective for a moment or two but have no lasting impact. We end up just waiting for something to happen, and by the time the movie limps to the third act and finally leaves the studio, we’re almost hoping to see and hear shots fired just so we don’t doze off.
Movies like Dog Day Afternoon work because they feel like they’re actually happening in the place they’re set while a film like The Big Short commits fully to taking you through the entire nightmare scenario of how some greedy Wall Street bastards almost brought the world to its economic knees. Money Monster does neither of these things, and despite some game work from its stars and an occasional flash of the greater movie it could have been, it ultimately feels like an investment of time that you wish you hadn’t made.
Money Monster is in theaters on Friday (May 13).