The fears and anxieties born of the financial crisis and the current state of economic distrust have been broken down into large pieces to build a traditional dramatic plot in Jodie Foster’s uneven, though bluntly engaging Money Monster. The movie flirts with satire and acts the part of a suspense-driven thriller while deploying a swarm of twists and turns that do a fine job of steering the movie away from completely predictable dead ends.
There’s probably a better version of the pic buried amidst the shaky shifts in tone and genre, but Foster deserves credit for folding a modern subject and message into an old-fashioned package that relies on star power and an almost innocent honesty. We’ve seen successful facts-and-figures movies about the financial crisis, both funny and scary, so while Money Monster is traditional and familiar in many ways, it stands out in this small crowd because it trades charts and graphs for relatable human emotions.
It does so with a sense of humour, too, so Foster proves adept at skirting around sentimentality only to hit us with a punchline instead of diving into the treacle. There are surprises in that regard and surprises in an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser mould make the more mechanical elements go down smoother.
There are obvious routes taken as well, especially in the villain department, where Foster makes no effort to hide who’s at fault other than to hide the character away for much of the running time. The point is that we know where this is all headed, but not necessarily the specifics of how it’s going to get there. Small rewards, perhaps, except the movie’s mix of morality and motivated mentality has its clever complexities even as it lacks nuance.
The plot revolves around a publicly traded company that had a steadily rising stock value until a supposed computer glitch suddenly lost $800 million, leaving Average Joe stockholders in the lurch, but the movie counters the company’s claim by focusing entirely on human flaws instead of program imperfections. It’s not just the flaws of the villain that threaten to ruin the lives of the heroes, either. Everyone here is flawed, putting a certain measure of responsibility on each character in what is supposed to be a semi-metaphorical microcosm of the economic collapse and its devastating effects.
So while the movie sympathizes with the desperate gun-wielding Kyle (Jack O’Connell), who takes gaudy finance talk show host Lee Gates (George Clooney) hostage on air as retribution for recommending the now tanked stock, efforts are still made to show that Kyle has made some rotten decisions, too. And not just the decision to pick up the gun and storm a live TV studio set, but the decision to spend his money as he did.
In her own way, Foster is trying to illuminate the point that everyone is complicit in the financial crisis, only some more than others. Kyle represents all the fear and fury of the working class individuals who got screwed by greedy money-lenders, but he doesn’t get a free pass simply for being a victim here. This complicates the situation and steers the story away from the black-and-white territory that Foster’s movie would otherwise seem eager to inhabit. We can like Kyle and even oddly root for him in his bold blaze of glory while also understanding that he’s put himself in hot water by his own accord.
O’Connell plays Kyle in a little too crazy and over-the-top a key to make the dramatic impression the character seems capable of leaving, but it remains an engaging performance throughout. He’s acting alongside mega-stars, too, so perhaps he felt the need to play the role loud and clear to ensure he’d stand out. Clooney cranks up the smarm for his comically hyperbolic performance-within-the-performance as on-air Lee and then adopts a more emotional charm when things go south. Julia Roberts proves the most subdued of the bunch as Lee’s tough producer who also ends up embroiled in Kyle’s plan.
Seeing big movie star wattage in an old-fashioned pic like this certainly makes the broad crowd-pleasing elements more easily digestible. On the flip-side, this approach means the edges have been sanded down, so what tidbits of satire remain definitely lack bite. What works about Money Monster is that it tries to do a lot of things, from injecting humour into a dark story to providing claustrophobic life-or-death suspense to energetically dramatizing the intricacies of financial deceit, and it does each of these things relatively well.
It doesn’t reach greatness with any one thing it’s attempting to do and that’s what makes me wonder whether a Money Monster that goes all-in on the satire or commits whole-heartedly to the suspense and takes place entirely in the TV studio would be a more impactful version. Foster’s approach is more wide-reaching, less stylistically focused, but as far as loose genre juggling goes, this is a decent attempt.
The key here is that Foster has a lot to say and while it’s the kind of statement that has been said many times before, there’s an earnest and eager quality to Foster’s saying that lends the pic passion and relevance. There’s also a blandness in play which comes with the scattered focus, leaving little time for the villain to be anything more than a cardboard cutout and yet still finding time to continually show us random Manhattanites watching the hostage situation play out on TVs in bars and coffee shops.
The decision to widen the scope for what is essentially a real-time thriller is an interesting one and it’s where Money Monster both struts and stumbles. Foster wants to include everyone to make the point that even a specific incident involving only a few individuals can connect society as a whole. The aim is to toy with darkness while maintaining an investment in hope. That’s good and all, but would the tighter version be better? Yeah, probably, though then we’re just talking about a different movie. For all of Foster’s film’s flaws, it’s still a twisty little tale that boils very real fears down to their fictitiously elemental core. This isn’t particularly fresh or creative cinema and it’s not going to fill your wallet with wisdom, but you probably won’t be asking for your money back, either.