Here is a film that’s both aching to be the next Network as well as yearning to be mainstream populist entertainment. Money Monster falls well short of the former goal, but in terms of the latter, it’s certainly more successful. Jodie Foster‘s latest directorial outing is, in many ways, the perfect movie for the Occupy Wall Street movement. The intent is pure, the message is catchy, but the details are sketchy and at times border on the absurd. No question about it, I agree with the viewpoint being espoused by Money Monster, but it’s only sporadically effective in elevating a solid thriller into something meaningful. In that regard, this is a good film in search of a way to become an even better one. It’s entertaining, but not especially informative, which is something it ideally would have liked to have been. The flaws are noticeable, but the performances of main cast members George Clooney, Jack O’Connell, and Julia Roberts help to cover it up. Had the screenplay not shown some signs of an unnecessary re-write, I might very well have been more enthusiastic about this one. Foster does what she can, but she’s in some ways showing off all of her inconsistencies as a director.
The film more or less takes place in real time, especially once the plot really gets in motion. We begin by being introduced to the set of the financial news/entertainment program which shares a title with the movie, hosted by Lee Gates (Clooney). He’s a cocksure and suave salesmen, as much a game show host as a stock market whisperer. Keeping him in check, or at least trying to, is producer/show runner Patty Fenn (Roberts), but she’s at the end of her rope and is taking a new job, ridding herself of Lee. Today’s show seems to be going fine, up until a stranger walks in on shooting, brandishing a gun. The intruder is Kyle Budwell (O’Connell), a regular guy who lost everything following Lee’s tips, specifically a firm called IBUS, which just lost $800 million in one night. Kyle is at the end of his rope, so he’s brought a pistol and a bomb, which he straps to Lee. Kyle wants answers, and while initially Patty just instructs Lee to play along, when the corporate talking points from IBUS spokeswoman Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) ring hollow, everyone begins to get suspicious. Not helping matters is that the company’s CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) was supposed to be a guest on the show but has gone off the grid. Now, while the cops attempt to take out Kyle, Lee begins to come around to his side and wants to get to the bottom of everything, finally doing some real journalism. From there, Money Monster becomes more than a hostage drama. It also wants to be a commentary on Wall Street and a corporate thriller.
Though none of the main trio are doing their best work to date, all three are pretty solid in Money Monster, to differing degrees. George Clooney works his charm to make Lee a scoundrel, but one that you can’t help but like. I might argue that the film didn’t need to have him turn into a hero by the midway point, but that’s an issue for later. Clooney embraces the heel aspect as well as the crusader for justice aspect with equal amounts of gusto. It’s not an all time performance from him, but it’s very effective, regardless. Jack O’Connell gets to show more of the anger that he’s displayed in a number of roles so far, but while he’s good, he’s been better. This furthers the theory that O’Connell is better in independent productions than big studio ones so far. As for Julia Roberts, she’s almost completely reduced to sitting behind a pane of glass watching the action unfold and whispering into Clooney’s earpiece. You could say that Roberts both is wasted and also elevates an underwritten role, which doesn’t often happen. Caitriona Balfe is fine but unexceptional, while Dominic West is exactly the type of weasel you expect a character like this to be. I will say that Emily Meade pops up in a brief turn as Kyle’s girlfriend and her scene goes completely differently than you’d expect, but I won’t spoil what happens. Supporting players include Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Christopher Denham, Giancarlo Esposito, Greta Lee, Lenny Venito, and more.
Jodie Foster made an unseen gem in The Beaver a number of years back. Here, she amps up the glossiness of her filmmaking, along with an attempt at grit, which sort of puts the movie at odds with itself sometimes, despite talented cinematographer Matthew Libatique on hand. Foster wants to pay homage to Sidney Lumet, but she just doesn’t have the material to work with. The script is credited to Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf, and Jamie Linden, with DiFiore and Kouf having story credit as well, suggesting that Linden came in on a re-write. If so, that may be who undercuts Foster and company. There are some glaring attempts at comedy that just don’t work, along with a third act that just goes over the top. For a while, the screenplay balances the mystery of what happened with IBUS and the hostage situation in a rather compelling way, but Foster and the writers just get too clever in the final act. They don’t ruin the flick, but they do damage it.
Overall, Money Monster is an entertaining mainstream thriller with delusions of grandeur. Had the screenplay been sharper and a little less tinkered with, I think Foster could have given us an even better movie. Again, the film is worthy of a recommendation, but it’s an unenthusiastic one, to say the least. The actors do their best and fans of them should leave satisfied, but this is a bit of a missed opportunity. You could do a lot worse in theaters this weekend than Money Monster, but you can do a lot better as well.
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