On ‘Money Monster’ And The Dangers Of Fake Satire

The main question Money Monster raises is whether it’s just a bad movie or bad for society. That it’s a bad movie isn’t really in question, and honestly, you probably knew that from the trailer. It’s all furrowed brows and panicked gasps, looking so hard boiled that it’s flavorless and mushy, like bad Irish food.

George Clooney stars as “Lee Gates,” leading infotainment pundit for “FNN,” and a clear stand-in for CNBC’s Jim Cramer. He opens his shows dancing obnoxiously to hip-hop, and when he recommends a down stock, he puts on a boxer’s robe and gloves (it’s going to “fight back,” you see). He manages to be simultaneously less believable than his real-life counterpart and not substantively more ridiculous. Though he is more obnoxious, which is a feat, considering the real Jim Cramer hurts my ears on mute. Gates is also a slick, rich, workaholic womanizer with an estranged daughter, looking for that proverbial shot at redemption. Julia Roberts plays his long-suffering producer who proverbially knows him better than he knows himself, proverbially. Will they f*ck? (Tune in next week, on The Newsroom!)

When a junior producer comes to Gates with a hot stock tip on a pharma company (everything is abbrev’d in Money Monster, from quants to algos) that’s developing an erectile cream, Gates makes him test it on himself, in the bathroom. It works so well he that he gets a big boner, and later uses it on a lady. A lot of Money Monster is “clever” in a similarly unclever way, like an Eastern Bloc knock-off Christopher Buckley.

Torn-from-the-headlines meets torn-from-a-Robert-McKee-seminar when Gates starts recommending stock in IBIS, who, we’re told, specialize in “high-frequency trading.” If you’ve read Flash Boys, you know that this is a method of trading that involves creating computer programs that buy and sell stocks many times per second. Money Monster is sort of like a Flash Boys adaptation Oliver Stone directed without reading the book first, a clumsy attempt at applying Baby Boomer satire to 21st Century problems. Is there a slick montage of computer code flying at the screen? Maybe a long zoom of some abstract grids to represent the internet? You bet there is! Everything is connected… and your kids could be doing it!

Pretty soon disgruntled delivery driver Kyle Budwell — who I’d like to think was named “Tyler Budweiser, American Millennial” in the rough draft — shows up to hijack the program and get some answers, dammit! This Budwell character is a complete mess. Like all of Money Monster‘s blue collar characters, we know he’s blue collar right away from his Joanie Pepperoni, eh oh, I’m just bustin’ bawls ova heah accent. Uncharacteristically, this I’m walkin’ heah knockaround guy is angry on account of he lost $60,000 on IBIS stock.

Maddone, I just lost my friggin bawls on dis stock cuzza dis mamaluke. Now I can barely affoad gabba gool for my goomah! 

Just to make things even more convoluted, this character is played by the boyishly handsome Irish-Englishman Jack O’Connell. Look at this guy. You think a guy this handsome living in New York would be driving a delivery truck? Not a chance. He’d be a bartender, a club promoter, a server at a fancy restaurant — doing some handsome-guy job making a lot more than the $14 an hour he says he makes in Money Monster. Jack O’Connell needs a lot more than a little stubble and a dirty hoodie to sell him as the proverbial guy who fell through the proverbial cracks.

His character speaks to Money Monster‘s clumsy execution, and his entire arc to Money Monster‘s clumsy attempt to communicate the idea that “when Wall Street sneezes, Main Street gets a cold.” A guy who lost money he inherited from his mom on some stocks he bought because of a TV show? Is that really the problem with the financial sector? Unequivocally, it’s not. Money Monster has all the trappings of satire with none of the bite. It displays about as much understanding of the issues it references as a college freshman who went to a political rally so he could screw a girl.

But okay, maybe we give it the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it’s not trying to say anything about high finance, just use it as a jumping off point for a good time. Sure, we can’t blame financial problems on one McNulty-looking motherf*cker who was fomenting strikes in a South African platinum mine (*eye roll*) while porking his PR lady… but what if we could? Wouldn’t that be nice? If one guy could hijack a TV show, expose the real criminals, and everything would be fixed? A sort of Joanie Pepperoni Goes To Washington story?

It would, and there are times when Money Monster flirts with being an enjoyable trifle, entertaining in an OH SNAP Law & Order kind of way. Like when the cops get Budwell’s girlfriend on the phone, and instead of trying to talk him down she calls him a pussy who “cries when we f*ck.”

Damn, did the fake Ghostface write this? Say what you will about Money Monster, it does maintain its ability to surprise.

The big question of “bad for the world or just crappy” comes into play mostly at the end, when it’s revealed that it’s not high-frequency trading that caused a crash, just this one corrupt guy (the previously mentioned McNulty, aka Dominic West). But then he points out that he hasn’t actually done anything illegal. He was just serving the shareholders who demanded higher and higher returns!

Maybe it was all of us who were to blame. Maybe it wasn’t high-frequency trading, or even this one corrupt guy. Maybe it was materialism. And… the media.

And when they came for the algos, I said nothing, because I was not a quant.

A lot of bad satire of this ilk exhorts us to take a look in the mirror, maaan. Hollywood faux-liberals love making you feel guilty so much that guilt itself is a policy goal. But here’s the thing: If everyone’s to blame, no one is. If we all take a small enough crumb of responsibility, we barely even taste it. That’s the definition of toothless satire. And if Money Monster isn’t satire, and that perception is just the marketing department’s fault… well, it doesn’t work as escapism either. Because you can’t really escape from a problem while you’re blaming yourself for it.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.