“Money Monster” is “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon” and
CNBC’s “Mad Money” all wrapped up into a tight little ball of preposterousness. It’s well made, juicily acted, a fun watch, but for all its financial-vigilante noise, the movie’s a slick Hollywood response to the depredations of Wall Street. It claims to be on the side of the little guy, but you can tell that no one here has struggled to make the rent for a very long time.
It’s one of those movies that talks smart without actually being smart, and it has been brought to the screen with professionalism and a whippy pace by director Jodie Foster, staying behind the camera here. You go along for the ride even as your “oh, come on” response increasingly kicks in.
George Clooney (who produced along with Grant Heslov) plays Lee Gates, a sort of amped-up Jim Cramer who hosts the daily “Money Monster” show on a financial cable news network. He hands out stock tips with cheesy old-movie clips, twerks in a gold hat with backup dancers, and generally makes a highly rated horse’s ass of himself. “We don’t do ‘gotcha’ journalism here,” his weary producer Patty (Julia Roberts) assures a guest. “Hell, we don’t do journalism, period.”
We’re primed to loathe the guy, and when a gun-toting young man named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell of “Unbroken”) takes over the live broadcast and straps an explosive vest onto Lee, part of us relishes the comeuppance. The early scenes are the strongest, tick-tocking away with nervous sweat and suspense, and while most of the movie stays within the confines of the TV studio, Foster and the screenplay (by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf) inject enough Noo Yawk flavor to keep Sidney Lumet from rolling over in his grave. Barely.
Kyle, an earnest blue-collar lummox, is upset because he bet a $60,000 inheritance on one of Lee’s stock tips, and the company in question, a hedge fund with the not-at-all-evil-sounding name of Ibis, has just gone south for mysterious reasons, taking the kid’s money with it. He wants the host to publicly apologize and he wants Walt Camby (Dominic West of TV’s “The Affair”), the preening CEO of Ibis, to come down and explain. But Camby is off the grid in a private jet, leaving his Corporate Communications VP, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe of “Outlander”), scrambling to come up with answers.
“Money Monster” could have been a decent, straightforward suspense drama that plays out its hostage situation as a conflicted reflection of our own rage toward the 1 percent and a financial shell game that seems rigged before we even buy in. One exchange, in which Kyle bleakly describes the impossibility of living in New York on $14 an hour, catches some of this desperation, but it’s short-lived. There’s a mystery to be solved — what really caused that $800 million stock dive? — and soon Lee is in cahoots with his own captor while Patty conspires with the corporate PR flack to get to the bottom of the mess.
Before we know what’s happening, we’re hearing about “algos” (trading algorithms) and dropping in on coke-snorting coders in Seoul and bong-huffing hackers in Iceland. By the time Lee and Kyle take a forced march down the crowded avenues of Manhattan for a televised Wall Street finale, “Money Monster” has fully jumped the tracks and you’re still watching only to see how they wind it up. (Absurdly, in short.)
But it’s the kind of mid-budget, un-digitized drama featuring real people (or reasonable facsimiles thereof) that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore, so there’s that. And Foster gets to crowd the frame with good character actors, like Giancarlo Esposito (struggling in the stock role of the head cop on the crisis) and Emily Meade (blissfully and bluntly foul-mouthed as Kyle’s girlfriend, who’s not the bargaining chip a hostage negotiator might hope for).
“Money Monster” is an acceptable time-waster for a slow day in a movie theater or a slow night on cable. But it never makes you mad as hell, so what’s the point?
Directed by Jodie Foster. Written by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf. Starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 90 minutes. PG-13 (language throughout, some sexuality and brief violence).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.