Money Monster (2016) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout, some sexuality and brief violence.
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O'Connell, Caitriona Balfe, Dominic West, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito
Small role: Wolf Blitzer
Director: Jodie Foster
Screenplay: Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf
Review published May 14, 2016
George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, a flashy Jim Kramer-ish cable television network host of a financial advice program called "Money Monster", happy to dole out stock advice in a snarky, cocky manner, drawing more out of entertainment and spectacle than in how it might affect those on the other side should any of his "rock-solid" tips prove wrong. Someone it has affected finally forces him to atone first-hand when a distraught young man named Kyle Budwell storms onto the set during the live feed of the show, putting Lee at gunpoint to put on a vest full of explosives, wanting some answers, as well as some contrition, after losing his life savings on supposedly sure-fire advice in investing money in Ibis Clear Capital. Ibis is a company the host persistently extoled the virtues of that suffered a major setback to the tune of $800 million in losses practically overnight, claiming a software glitch to its complicated corporate algorithm as responsible for things going haywire. Now Lee's going to have to put his life on the line to get Kyle the answers he's seeking from the show's slated guest, Walt Camby, the jet-setting CEO of Ibis, on just how such an unlikely event could occur that would cost investors to potentially lose their livelihoods on a freak error.
Julia Roberts plays "Money Monster" producer Patty Fenn, who is set to leave to greener pastures to work for another network. Patty is the persistent and calm voice in Lee's earpiece who tries to keep him on point, and, in this case, to try to keep him alive, feeding him advice on what to do and say to his violent unexpected guest. Patty also make the decision to keep directing the show, coercing the host to continue to do his job and get Kyle the answers he's after by asking tough questions to Ibis chief communications officer, Diane Lester, in lieu of actually getting to the absent Camby for information. Those questions make Lester, who was hired to just deliver PR talking points (and to entertain Camby on the side), take a more aggressive stance, digging for some real answers within her own company that now even she's curious about.
Money Monster is directed by Jodie Foster, who should get some credit for trying to tackle on some weighty and timely themes on greed, corruption, and the responsibility of the media, but, unfortunately, these aspects continuously get buried underneath implausible plot turns and not-too-exciting thriller elements. Certainly, the ripe messages are there: the complicit nature of the corporate-owned media in putting big business and money above the concerns of everyday people, the current state of the news industry to put entertainment above information, and how little investigative work actually gets done by reporters who, literally here, need to have a gun pointed to their head before they'll ask tough and relevant questions to those who are obviously lying to the public they're supposed to keep informed above all else. It also could be a cynical look at the apathy of that American public, so accustomed to bombast and spectacle to drive television ratings that even the possibility on a live execution on television becomes an entertaining media circus in and of itself.
Instead of that potent and insightful film, we get one that would rather playfully play with its food instead of hungrily devour it. Comic relief moments land mostly with a thud, with such things involving Gates making one of his crew test a newfangled erection cream (which ends up working all too well, resulting in the film's inanely presented sex scene) as something we're supposed to find amusing. The tone of the film is erratic, too glossy to delve into the reality of the issues underneath the surface, and, like the "Money Monster" TV show, too concerned with entertaining its viewing public to really try to get to some honest answers about Wall Street, the media, and the current state of indifference by the underserved populace whose would-be concerns have been consistently disregarded by both.
One of the larger issues of the film's inability to connect comes from characters we either don't come to care about, or that we immediately despise. Even a likeable and charismatic actor like George Clooney struggles to make Lee Gates relatable enough to root for, belatedly showing some humanity underneath the TV-friendly smarm and charm. He's a showman, not a newsman, who literally performs song and dance or the public, probably never having asked a tough question in his life. To think he's returning to journalistic chops to do so, even when forced at gunpoint, seems incredulous. Julia Roberts is adequate in a role that doesn't require a big-name star, possibly beefed up beyond the level of importance to the story because of her casting. Even though Patty is concerned for the safety of her crew, the fact that she tries to make 'great TV' out of the fiasco not only seems farfetched, but also deflates our ability to relate to her position as something resembling a real human being. Plus, other than the fact that she is about to leave the show, and has felt generally underappreciated by Gates for her efforts, there's nothing to her character of significance.
And then there's the most emphatic issue of a lack of sympathy for the man who lost his livelihood playing the stock market on Gates' advice, Kyle. Jack O'Connell is fine in the role, albeit with an iffy Queens, 'Nyew Yawk' accent, but his character feels too idealized, too utilitarian to the film's plot when called upon, to ever truly buy him as the voice of the people. The film seems to think we should be rooting for him as that crusader of conscience who finally does what the American public hasn't actually done, which is to hold someone responsible for their actions on Wall Street and their bedfellows in their media, but he still comes off like an ignorant crackpot. Without our concern for his life, or of the life of Gates, there is little tension in the so-called riveting thriller sequences, leaving us only rooted in seeing where things might ultimately go in the quest for an answer from Walt Camby on exactly where things went haywire for his company.
Foster labors mightily to make the film is important as she seems to be striving to make it, trying in vain to hold the film together despite the forced situations contrived in the screenplay credited by Jamie Linden (We Are Marshall) retooling the screenplay from Jim Kouf, who co-wrote Rush Hour, National Treasure, and created the TV show "Grimm", along with "Grimm" writer Alan DiFiore. If the film is meant to be a satire, it never congeals as such, caught somewhere between being one-third silly workplace comedy and two-thirds dark thriller, aspects often at odds with each other in whole scenes. Plot points are increasingly ludicrous; the NYPD, rather than talk directly to Kyle and try to talk him out of the situation, would rather just take up arms and kill him, after supposedly shooting Lee in a spot that would diffuse the explosive vest. Great plan.
This brings about another issue, which is that of focus. Efforts to show the police struggling with what to do about the situation are unnecessary and largely unenlightening, so they'd be better relegated to the proverbial cutting-room floor. Same with the frequent breaks from the action to spotlight other characters from around the world who get involved in the situation in a tertiary manner, such as the goings-on of the Korean computer programmer who designed the maligned algorithm, a peek at a couple of Icelandic hackers prying into seemingly every video camera system on Earth for some improbably speedy and accurate face-matching searches, and a South African rebel named Mambo, who is leading a strike against a platinum mine that ends up tying into the main plot.
Then there are also frequent cutaways to how other new organizations and industry pundits are covering the events, seemingly just as mindless and snarky as the rest. And the American public, shown as barely interested in the value of human life, such that they'd rather create memes out of situations that wind up with people nearly dead, makes you even root against 'us' as a people, undeserving of being rescued from corporate swindlers for deliberate obliviousness to current events and callous disregard of each other as a caring community. All in all, we seem pretty happy to be reckless idiots, so why shouldn't corporations prey upon fools and our soon-to-be-parted money? The worst of it comes from the amateur sleuthing done on the part of Diane Lester in trying to figure out whether the sudden tanking of the company's stock price was indeed just a glitch, an act of malice, or something else entirely that it being covered up. The egregiously contrived hows and whys of her actions might have you rolling your eyes right our of your head.
Tonally erratic and too fantastical to buy as something resembling our known reality, Money Monster is a missed opportunity to make a potent, topical issues film that rips the mask off of the facade of 'infotainment' on television, and how they continue to cover the stock market as a big money-game than real business, despite potentially having dire consequences to the lives of millions on the line with each progressive gamble. While it's commendable to see news people return to trying to become the conduit for the concerns of the public, rather than spokespeople for the corporations they're supposed to be covering, one gathers by the end of this misfire that very little actual light has been shed on the topic. It threatens but can't deliver on the ultimatums on putting the ills of the current corporate structure of television news under scrutiny, and for that, it becomes like its supposed working-class antihero -- willing to take up arms to hold the industry hostage, but unsure of what or how to do things once they take control of the cameras.
©2016 Vince Leo