The early moments of Money Monster fly by in a barrage of exposition, conversation and cable TV bodies in motion. In the opening scene, we meet Lee Gates (George Clooney), the histrionic, Jim Cramer-esque host of a financial investment show, as he explains to his audience that “an algorithmic glitch” has caused shares of IBIS, a global commodities firm that Gates previously characterized as a sure thing, to plummet. “You don’t have a clue where your money is,” he tells his viewers, noting that the cash everyone works so hard to amass is really nothing but ephemeral numbers in a computer that can suddenly — blip — disappear.
Director Jodie Foster immediately cuts from those revelations to the Sorkin-esque walking and talking that unfolds as Gates prepares for a live broadcast of his show, Money Monster. Myriad assistants and his skilled producer, Patty (Julia Roberts), brief him on matters ranging from canceled dinner reservations to new-to-the-market erectile dysfunction cream to what he’ll say when the IBIS communications officer joins him on-air to answer questions about the aforementioned glitch.
Soon, Gates is in the middle of his usual broadcast blowhard routine when a delivery guy (Jack O’Connell) wanders on-set, pulls out a gun, throws a suicide vest on Gates, and threatens to blow that handsome talking head to pieces unless someone can more adequately explain how IBIS, into which the hostage-taker poured all of his savings, lost $800 million overnight.
This all happens within, approximately, the first 15 minutes of the film.
It’s an awful lot to process, and that seems to be the point that Foster and screenwriters Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf, and Jamie Linden are intentionally making. With so much noise and information whipping at the average human every day, how can we know what to believe, how best to invest our money or who to blame when the stock market goes to hell?
The problem is that these early scenes and much of Money Monster are an awful lot to process for moviegoers, as well, making it a challenge to fully invest in this thriller/excoriation of Wall Street and the American media. The film toggles frenetically between tones. One minute it’s a taut action pic (its most effective mode), then it’s a serious piece of social commentary, and then, possibly, a work of satire. It’s hard to tell sometimes when this movie wants us to laugh and it’s even harder to get our feet fully planted before the next narrative twist pushes things in a new direction. Add to all of this a plot that requires characters to explain algorithms and high-frequency trading and, well, let’s just say it’s understandable if you wish that Margot Robbie would suddenly show up in a bathtub and explain it all for us the way she did in The Big Short.
Like that Oscar-nominated examination of the housing market crash, Money Monster throws shade at a system that allows the already wealthy to stay that way while the little guy is left with low funds in his bank account. But while The Big Short focuses on the investment gurus who profit from that system, Foster is much more concerned with tapping into the real-life rage and frustration experienced by the economically disenfranchised.
Kyle, the man who holds a cable host and his crew hostage on live television, is portrayed as impulsive and angry, but ultimately sympathetic, a guy who’s had a rough time of it and finally just cracked. As played by O’Connell looking like Matt Saracen from Friday Night Lights after an exceptionally bad day, he seems addled, but never truly dangerous. While there are moments in the film that ratchet up the tension effectively — including the slow ooze of a SWAT team into the studio — that diluted sense of danger prevents Money Monster from feeling as suspenseful as it should.
Foster seems to be attracted to characters who have reached a breaking point. Her last directorial effort, the overlooked and underrated The Beaver, is also about a man (Mel Gibson) facing personal and financial troubles — his toy company has gone bankrupt — who starts communicating via a hand puppet in order to cope. That film was an off-the-wall indie, whereas Money Monster wants to be an intelligent work of mainstream entertainment for adults, a Dog Day Afternoon for this new millennial, post-economic crash, digital age. It only partially succeeds.
Because we’ve witnessed so many unfortunate incidents in which armed men lose their cool in very public ways, we have some sense of what it actually looks and feels like when a Money Monster-type situation unfolds. There’s something about this fictional hostage crisis that never feels fully authentic, partly because the police, led by Giancarlo Esposito, are so deferential to the wishes of Patty and the network and partly because the network continues to allow this episode to unfold on the air for a lengthy period of time.
The movie has some fun playing with that fantasy vs. reality element; there’s a moment when Gates begs the TV audience to invest in IBIS so that its stock price will rebound, Kyle can recoup his losses and Gates’ life can be saved. At first, that plan starts to work and we see a close-up of Roberts looking at that rising value like it’s Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. But then Gates says to-camera: “Ask yourself, what is a life worth to you? What is my life worth?” And suddenly the numbers start to sink again.
It’s a darkly comic moment that reminds us that Foster has no intention of letting the bad one-percenters off the hook here. But it also waters down the authenticity of the situation; to ultimately care about what happens to Gates and his colleagues, you have to take their captivity seriously. At times, the movie makes that tough to do.
For the record, both Clooney and Roberts, who only get to put their chemistry on full display in a couple of scenes, do their usual grounded, authoritative best to make the material work. These two are pros. But even professionals sometimes take a loss, and that’s what Money Monster ultimately feels like: an investment that doesn’t quite pay off.