Money Monster wants to be more than just another mindless thriller. By building its foundation on a message about the dangers of playing the stock market roulette wheel, it seeks to inject substance into a genre overrun by action-driven popcorn films. Unfortunately, despite a surfeit of talent in front of and behind the camera, the movie is unable to overcome a shaky narrative whose increasing preposterousness ensures it's difficult to take seriously.
The term "suspension of disbelief" comes into play with a movie that wants viewers to accept that it transpires in the "real world" rather than in some parallel universe where the laws of common sense (and sometimes physics) have been suspended. One doesn't worry about "suspension of disbelief" in a movie like Die Hard - we get that it's pure fantasy, existing exclusively to deliver adrenaline-fueled excitement. Money Monster, on the other hand, has a message and, in order for a member of the audience to buy into the message, the world in which it transpires has to exhibit a strong sense of plausibility, and that's where the movie fails. As the contrivances build one atop another like a shaky house of cards, it becomes increasingly difficult to remain immersed in the story. The outlandish climax strains credulity past the breaking point.
The movie has a great hook: imagine what would happen if a desperate man, having lost everything as a result of following a TV financial advisor's advice, takes the host hostage on live TV. George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the front man for Money Monster, a cable TV show that mixes kitsch with market picks. Gates' loud, fast-talking approach (aping that of actual hosts) makes him seem more like a carnival barker than someone worthy of giving advice. His producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), is so tired of the day-to-day grind in general and Gates in particular that she already has one foot out the door when a mysterious "delivery man" arrives on set with a couple of boxes. With the cameras rolling, Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell), whips out a gun and forces Gates to don an explosive vest. Then, after explaining how he lost his entire savings following a "buy" tip for stock that subsequently tanked, he demands an explanation. Unable to provide it, Gates contacts the corporation's Chief Communications Officer (Caitriona Balfe) but she is unable to offer more than the standard "talking points." Her attempts to reach the CEO (Dominic West) prove fruitless, causing Gates to wonder whether the stock's fall might be the result of malfeasance rather than typical Wall Street corruption.
With all its talk of "algorithms" and "glitches", there are times when Money Monster threatens to mire viewers in double-speak. Although the movie seeks to indict the entire Wall Street culture, it falls short of The Big Short in doing so. In fact, in the end, this is more about the greed of one person than the failings of a system (although the screenplay reminds viewers that the system encourages the corruption). The NYPD's image takes a hit - the cops come across as bumbling amateurs, unable to manage a crisis.
Director Jodie Foster wrings tension out of the situation with the level of suspense building as events conspire to bring Kyle closer to the brink. Foster turns the enclosed TV set location into a pressure cooker with the key players - Gates, Patty (a disembodied voice), and a cameraman - fighting to keep Kyle from blowing. And, as Gates recognizes his complicity in the young man's situation, guilt starts to eat at his conscience. Foster has likely taken cues from Sidney Lumet here - the distant echoes of Dog Day Afternoon are unmistakable.
Gates is a polished salesman whose on-camera demeanor is reflective of his off-camera personality: charming but abrasive. Clooney brings his patented likability to the role; his performance is spot-on. Julia Roberts has the thankless job of sitting in a separate room watching Clooney on a monitor and whispering instructions to him through an earpiece. Jack O'Connell plays Kyle like an uneducated, unhinged man who (as evidenced by a brutal scene in which his girlfriend berates him) has problems beyond losing $60,000 in a bad stock deal. As the film unfolds, we (like Gates) are intended to become more sympathetic toward him but he too often comes across like a whiner.
For a while, with the drama playing out on live TV while the world watches, Money Monster is compelling viewing. But, when the police start implementing their undercooked rescue plan and Gates kicks off a long-distance investigation into the stock's crash, the film loses its immediacy. Verisimilitude is overwhelmed by absurdity. Money Monster wants to be a smart thriller but it's undone by a script that, despite having a legitimate ax to grind, resorts to hard-to-swallow contrivances and dumb characters to shepherd everything to a resolution.
© 2016 James Berardinelli