‘Money Monster’ Review: Greed Is Good. This Movie Is Bad.
When it opens on Friday, Money Monster will be the most preposterous film currently in theaters. No easy feat at a time when multiplexes also feature a superhero saga about a genius in a suit of flying armor fighting a man who spent 75 years frozen in an iceberg, and an adaptation of a cartoon about a boy who can talk to bears.
Money Monster presents a scenario that is tough to swallow on its surface — a man with a gun and a bomb easily sneaks into a cable news network and holds a TV host hostage live on air — and only gets more ludicrous from there. Forget the suspension of disbelief; Money Monster calls for the complete and total expulsion of disbelief. Or maybe its assassination.
As the story begins, a tech company named IBIS has just lost some $800 million of its investors money overnight. The CEO (Dominic West) blames “a computer glitch.” That seems like the sort of thing that would get the entire stock market shut down, or prompt some kind of investigation. But the media buys the excuse. Lee Gates (George Clooney), the host of the stock tip TV show Money Monster, preps for his day’s episode more concerned about his post-taping dinner date than the hundreds of millions of dollars of missing capital. West’s CEO ducks his scheduled appearance on Lee’ show and orders his CCO Diane (Caitriona Balfe) to take his place. She repeatedly warns Lee’s director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), that their interview must stick strictly to her company’s prepared talking points about the incident. “We don’t do gotcha journalism here,” Patty assures Diane. “Hell, we don’t do journalism period.”
The carefully scripted conversation never happens. Before Lee can introduce Diane, a truck driver from Queens named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) finds his way inside the Money Monster studio and forces Lee into a homemade bomb vest. Kyle lost a $60,000 inheritance on an IBIS stock tip he got from Money Monster, and he is understandably upset about it. He forces Patty to keep the show on the air, and demands answers while the NYPD figure out how to end the situation — violently, if necessary.
At the very least, the early scenes capture some of the rhythm and flavor of a busy television station full of professionals; the way they talk and go about their jobs. The Money Monster show, obviously inspired by Jim Cramer’s Mad Money, looks like something you might flip past on cable, and Clooney’s smirking antics as its host are good for a couple chuckles. (The inevitable GIFs of Clooney dancing in wacky outfits from the opening segment of each Money Monster episode will surely be this film’s one meaningful contribution to popular culture.) When Kyle seizes control of the Money Monster studio — and while Lee has a complete meltdown — Patty remains calm and keeps directing her show; repositioning her cameramen to get better shots even as she orders the non-essential staff to evacuate. That feels right too. If anyone has the nerves of steel needed to maintain their cool during a bomb threat it’s a live television director.
But those smaller details of TV production are the only parts that ring true about the screenplay by Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf, and Jamie Linden, which imagines financial conspiracies so poorly concealed and so obviously devious that they can be completely exposed in a matter of minutes by a bunch of admitted non-journalists in the middle of a live broadcast and a hostage crisis. Director Jodie Foster also asks viewers to buy the notion that the NYPD would let a TV director tell them what to do (and give a mad gunman a ludicrous amount of freedom of movement), and that a corrupt CEO might use a Swiss chocolate bar as proof that he’s just returned from Switzerland. There are many more elements that make no sense, but they qualify as spoilers. If you see the movie though (which I would not advise), ask yourself: Given what we eventually learn about Kyle, would he make that vest the way he makes it, with that big red light on it?
He wouldn’t, but then there’s a lot of stuff about him that’s confusing or strange (including O’Connell’s gruesome Noo Yawk accent). Kyle’s completely broke, stumbles into $60,000 — no small amount of money and maybe a down payment on a house — and he immediately blows the whole thing? The film slowly reveals details about Kyle’s life which are supposed to make him more sympathetic and open our eyes to the cruelty of the American economy, but his repeated stupidity makes him a tough character to like or care about, something that becomes very important in the third act of the film, when Foster tries to turn him into a Dog Day Afternoon-style plucky underdog.
Clooney and Roberts are both good fits for their roles, and they do what they can with the material they’re provided. It’s just that the material they’re provided is so crummy; the whole notion of “glitches” in “algos” made by “quants” that threaten to bring down the stock market feels like something recycled from a paranoid ’90s thriller. The time is certainly right for a clear-eyed movie about the way the modern stock market can be manipulated for the benefit of the rich at the expense of the poor. That movie exists. It’s called The Big Short. This movie is a dumb thriller made to exploit that sad reality for some cheap thrills, and it doesn’t even deliver on that level.