Tension with a side dish of satire

By Dave Randall

Money Monster
Directed by Jodie Foster 
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell
Rated R for language throughout,
some sexuality and brief violence 
1 hr. 38 min.

Along with terrorists and zombies, the most frightening, loathsome movie villains of the 21st century appear to be the avaricious practitioners of financial chicanery on Wall Street. These real-life pirates have already been satirized hilariously and chillingly by The Big Short, which amplified on real life through dark humor. That was more than likely the goal of Director Jodie Foster’s Money Monster — ostensibly a hostage film that zeroes in on both vulture capitalists and the media as the guys in the black hats.

The hundred-thousand-watt star power of George Clooney and Julia Roberts should burst from the screen like a solar flare. In spite of the potency of its lead actors, however, Money Monster juggles its genres. To be fully entertained by what is, in equal parts, a drama, a black comedy and thriller, one must suspend disbelief. 

Clooney is the self-assured, TV stock-market guru Lee Gates, who resembles CNBC’s Jim Kramer by way of World Wrestling Entertainment’s Vince McMahon. His live, over-the-top, wise-cracking, costume-clad, hip-hop-dancing, financial tip show is interrupted when a desperate, gun-toting Kyle Budwell (Unbroken’s Jack O’Connell) bursts into the studio. Budwell lost all his money when a company called IBIS Clear Capitol was drained of 800 million dollars by a computer glitch. Cursing, fuming, in pursuit of answers and no small measure of revenge, Kyle makes Lee put on a vest bomb, threatening to blow up the studio and everyone in it if he can’t get some sort of satisfaction. That includes a few words with Walt Camby (The Wire’s Dominic West), the IBIS CEO, who had been previously scheduled as Lee’s guest but was suddenly incommunicado.

During this live ordeal, Lee is directed through his earpiece by Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), producer and de facto psychologist, directing the televised terror as the tension mounts while putting together a search for Camby, and the story behind the glitch that caused IBIS’ devastating crash. Also trying to get to the bottom of things is IBIS Communications Officer Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe of Outlander), who, inch by inch, begins to function in a way that is counter to how most company flacks operate: She’s looking for the truth as well.

As things escalate, there are solid zingers that leaven the taut story lines with hearty laughs. Clooney is Clooney — snarky, charming and deadly serious with each inflection or narrowing of the eyes. Julia Roberts does likewise. It becomes obvious that simply getting from point A to point B and resolution of the situation is not the intent of writers Jim Kouf, Jamie Linden and Alan DiFiore. Beneath the surface of the unlikely scenario that pans out, is an indictment of Wall Street greed, exploitative television hosts, and the nation’s susceptibility to both. 

While Money Monster is fairly entertaining and able to land a few satirical blows, the story is too far-fetched. The aim to shed light on a broken financial system is almost obscured by the film’s desire to be three movies in one. Knowing it is satire at the outset, and not totally dependent on the gritty aspects of the usual thriller, helps absorb the not-so-realistic situations that arise. From another perspective, though, and as our electoral process currently teaches us, nothing is too much of a stretch for possibility — in cinema or reality. In that respect, Money Monster, though it is not the powerhouse its stars and director usually deliver, gets its messages across. The excuse, “That’s just the way business is done,” does not salve the wounds created by malfeasance, and the guy on TV is not just a guy — people do listen.