Movie Review: Money Monster
By Matthew Huntley
May 25, 2016
“It’s not that complicated. It’s actually the oldest trick in the book,” says Lee Gates, an eccentric financial analyst and TV show host, to a devious CEO who tried to scheme his stockholders out of $800 million. Being fraudulent isn't just the CEO’s problem; it’s also the problem with Money Monster, because Gates is right: this is one of the oldest tricks in the book, at least as far as a thriller plot is concerned. When the movie reaches its climax, it's disappointing that it’s all boiled down to this.
Jodie Foster’s commentary on corporate malfeasance, the omnipresent media, and the struggling lower class has the same problems as the 2013 sci-fi fable in which she starred, Elysium: it brings a number of relevant social, political and ethical issues to the table but doesn’t do anything new or interesting with them, and it doesn’t really see people's decisions and behavior beyond black and white, good or bad, right or wrong. It's either one or the other. As a thriller and parable, the movie merely plods along as the characters and events settle into the grooves the genre has already carved out for them, which makes it sort of dull to watch.
Our initial hope is that Foster, her writers and the cast will go against the grain and try something different, not making it so easy for the good guys to simply prevail and the bad guys to simply fall. Ironically, one of the movie’s arguments is that life is so easy for those who are already rich because they just keep getting richer at the expense of the little guys, which is sort of analogous to the relationship between the filmmakers and viewers, at least in this particular case: the filmmakers just keep peddling the same old stories at the expense of the viewers’ time and money. So, in a way, Foster and her team are going against their own message with the way the story plays out. If they really wanted to hold our attention and show they care, they would have crafted a narrative that's more piercing and unpredictable, which would have been more challenging and entertaining for those paying to see it.
In the movie, George Clooney plays Lee Gates, a.k.a. the “Money Monster,” a bombastic TV show host with his own hip-hop dancers, and everyday Gates spews out his opinions about what stock is either hot or not on Wall Street.
His voice carries like Chris Matthews and he employs cartoonish props, buzzers and big monitors to drive his points across. Julia Roberts is Patty Fenn, Gates' longtime technical director, who has plans to leave him and work for the company across the street because she feels Lee doesn’t listen to her, and she would be right. Gates is the center of his own universe, never stops talking and orders people around on a whim, including his producer Ron (Christopher Denham), whom he tells to apply an erectile cream that just came on the market and verify it works.
The big news on Wall Street is that the stock of IBIS, a global financial firm, has plummeted dramatically due to a “glitch” with the company's trading algorithm, or so the company says. This shakeup has made a liar out of Gates, who told his viewers they would be wise to purchase shares because he projected IBIS’s value would only go up. Not that Gates really cares too much, since he’s already wealthy. In fact, he exploits the company’s $800 million loss as a talking point and punch line on his show.
But Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a blue-collar worker from Queens who invested his entire life savings in IBIS, isn’t laughing. He sneaks onto Gates' set, fires a gun into the air and takes Gates hostage, forcing him to put on a vest rigged with explosives. Unless he gets some answers and a confession of misinformation, he will detonate the explosives and blow everyone away. And he’s not about to settle for the “glitch” excuse, either.
This crisis unfolds live on the air as the police attempt to thwart Kyle’s plans, even if it means wounding, or perhaps killing, Gates. Meanwhile, Patty tries to calm the situation by continuing to direct her crew, and speaking to Gates through his earpiece. She juggles the potential catastrophe in the studio while simultaneously advising the police and trying to get answers from Diane Lester, IBIS’s chief communications officer (Caitriona Balfe) who's trying to uncover the truth behind the stock plunge and find out exactly what Walt Camby (Dominic West), the company's CEO, is hiding.
I wish I could tell you that what transpires and what Camby is hiding make for cutting edge and thoughtful viewing, but Money Monster essentially unfolds the way we expect a mediocre thriller to, and so, at best, it ends up as vanilla entertainment, the kind you can have on in the background without really paying undivided attention to it. It doesn’t take any real risks or saying anything terribly provocative. Too early on, we pretty much know who will live, who will die, who will learn a valuable lesson, and who will get their comeuppance. The characters aren't developed beyond their archetypal roles and the speed and means by which the screenplay resolves the conflict is unconvincing and, frankly, silly.
Money Monster does leave one lingering question: why? Why, given the talent and resources, would the filmmakers take such a safe route toward such a foregone conclusion? Foster, Clooney and Roberts are still big players in Hollywood, and we'd like to think their presence and reputations would yield a more audacious project, but “Money Monster” stays within the lines and ends up feeling being bland and sapless. Oddly enough, we kind of wish the CEO would get away with his scheme. At least then the movie would have one twist going for it.