What an entertaining, but odd, beast Jodie Foster’s Money Monster is. It seems to think it has something important to say, and I suppose it does — somewhere in there. It is at least topical, which means it’s also very modern. Only it isn’t. Aspects of its plot, some of which are the most pleasing, are old as the hills. And it certainly owes a debt to Network (1976), though it’s never (thankfully) as hysterical as that. Plus, there’s some Dog Day Afternoon (1975) in there. The whole setup is pretty much out of the 1931 Five Star Final, but with the stock market and tabloid TV instead of tabloid journalism. (The basics of Marian Marsh holding newspaper managing editor Edward G. Robinson at gunpoint and demanding “Why did you kill my mother?” are not much different from the dynamic here.)
It’s a film that is both timely and old-fashioned — as perhaps might be expected with old-fashioned movie stars like George Clooney and Julia Roberts as two-thirds of the leading characters and up-and-coming actor Jack O’Connell as the third. It may look like a more modest The Big Short (2015), but it’s really only a mildly socially conscious suspense-thriller — one that doesn’t stand much scrutiny in the believability department. But there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we realize it’s an entertainment and not much more. (Believe it or not, not all movies need to be more than entertainments.)
Clooney plays Lee Gates (a thinly veiled version of CNBC’s Jim Cramer, host of “Mad Money”), an egotistical, loudmouthed, crude, even vaguely abusive host of an investment advice show called “Money Monster.” Gates is — at least as he’s introduced to us — hardly a likable character, but because he’s played by George Clooney, he kind of is. (And, of course, we know ultimately he will be likable). Functioning as his conscience (sort of) is his producer Patty Fenn (Roberts). (The conscience aspect is pretty pronounced, since most of their interactions consist of her giving him instructions through an earpiece. Rarely have co-stars shared so little screentime.) She’s also capable of keeping him together, cynical enough to know this reality-show flim-flam isn’t journalism and is cool in a crisis. That last is important, as the central story is about Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell doing his British best to sound like some form of New Yorker), a young man with a grudge against Gates.
Following Gates’ dubious advice about the safety of investing in Ibis Clear Capital, Kyle has dumped his entire inheritance ($60,000) into the stock. Unfortunately, Ibis inexplicably crashes to almost worthlessness (the corporate answer is a “computer glitch”). Its owner (Dominic West) has mysteriously disappeared, leaving his assistant Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) to come up with some kind of answer. At the top of the list of those wanting an answer is Kyle, who takes Gates hostage on live TV, straps a bomb to him and starts making demands for that answer. It’s a terrific premise, but since it’s also hampered by all manner of limitations, the film quickly becomes a search for that answer — something that will change the direction of the story.
What happens next belongs to the movie (the various angles are part of the entertainment), but it’s fair to say that it gets increasingly hard to believe while still being fairly tasty. The aspect of the movie being more or less in real time possibly adds to the tension, but the picture itself doesn’t stress this point. There are certainly problems, including a glibness to the ending that fails to worry too much about the consequences. I understand how and why that happens. The film wants to send the viewer home with a sense of comfort, but in itself there’s something a little cynical about this. Best bet? Don’t think about it too much. Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality and brief violence.