As we all sit here bracing ourselves for the onslaught of silly summer movie releases (just how many superheroes does Marvel have in its back catalogue anyway?) it’s a pleasure to spend 90 minutes in the thrall of pure Hollywood escapism smart enough to hold your interest with just enough depth to provide a little chew but, and this is important, a movie with only one goal in mind—to entertain an audience.
And that would be Money Monster, a hostage thriller written by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf and directed by Jodie Foster, her first feature film directing gig since 2011’s The Beaver.
If you follow movie news and reviews, you’ll know the plot of Money Monster. (If you don’t, we’ll get to that shortly) but the film is really about the gravitational pull of movie stars; in this case George Clooney and Julia Roberts. When people are that famous, they don’t ever “get lost” in the character they’re portraying on-screen. The truth is we don’t want them to. We want to watch George and Julia play characters (rather than become them) so we can identify with them and root for their success. This was the secret of Hollywood’s heyday—Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, for instance, crafted screen personas and played those version of Bette and Bogie in every film they made. They were brands.
No matter what’s going on around them, in Monster Money it’s impossible not to focus on George and Julia—it’s the inescapable lure of stardom.
In Money Monster George plays Lee Gates, the smooth-talking, platinum-gilded host of a cable financial news show that’s big on flash but maybe not so much on facts. Julia is his producer Patty—after several years as Gates’ fixer she’s leaving the show to work on another news program and the movie opens as they prepare to present their last show together.
Pressure Packed Plot
Foster and her writers have chosen to tell the story in “real time”—that is to say the movie has no cuts in time, it plays out continuously in the time it takes to play out. It’s not one uninterrupted take, like Hitchcock’s Rope, there are cuts in location and POV, but the 98 minutes of the film’s length is the 98 minutes of the film’s action.
I’d say that was a very clever decision on Foster’s part since, by it’s nature, the dynamic condenses the film and the build is a relentless drive forward.
After quickly establishing where we are and why George and Julia are there, the plot kicks in. Jack O’Connell plays a despondent working-class guy named Kyle Budwell who has invested his life-savings on a stock (IBIS Global Capital) which Gates lavishly hyped on his show. Due to a technical glitch in the company’s trading algorithm the company has tanked and Budwell’s investment is wiped out. So when Money Monster begins he bursts into the live broadcast of Gates’ show with a gun and forces Gates to put on a vest stuffed with enough Semtex to blow up the building. His plan is simple; unless he gets answers from someone at IBIS about what happened to the stock, he’s going to kill Gates, himself and everyone within 100 feet.
Since the show is being broadcast live the world watches the drama play out in the studio with George on the floor and Julia in the booth. They both alternately try to reason, manipulate, entreat, and trick their way out of danger.
By far the most interesting conceit of the film is that Budwell starts out a deranged psycho but as his continues telling his story, questioning the motives of the IBIS leadership team and exposing the dark secrets of the financial system, he becomes the film’s hero—the populist rage fueling the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is the same rage fueling Bidwell’s actions. Although the film every now and again seems to be reading down a preachy avenue, Foster avoids the pitfall of ham-fisted agitprop and, instead, keeps the audience engaged and entertained at all times.
And I have to say she’s succeeded. This is a taut thriller which, even with the occasional stumble, remains compelling and intriguing throughout. There are a certain number of implausibilities you’ll need to navigate but there are rewards if you do.
Johnny Carson used to say “You’ve got to buy the bit to get the joke”—meaning that if you can accept the premise of the gag’s set-up, you’ll get a chuckle at the end. Money Monster is a lot like that; in the cold light of day certain elements strain credulity—Budwell’s insightful rants about the black chicanery of the “Free Market” cult are so intellectually sophisticated he seems unlikely he’d have fallen for a boondoggle like the IBIS IPO. The skullduggery of the IBIS board is so blatantly unethical, it feels odd that Budwell would be the only person to spot it. The sleuthing work done by Julia and George under such distress appears to be rooted in Hollywood fantasy rather than Wall Street fact. But, a la Carson, if you can buy into the film’s premise, you’ll get to enjoy the rest of this pointed thriller directed with precision by Foster.
What really helps with the process of looking past the problems is the exceptionally strong performances by Clooney, Roberts, O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito—a large assortment of top flight actors. I suppose it’s not surprising that a woman known primarily as an actress has been able to elicit such forceful acting from her actors. Clooney, Roberts, and O’Connell have the lion’s share of the screen time and the three of them are a constant course of fascination. O’Connell’s a somewhat unknown quality so his blunt, earnest performance is riveting. Clooney and Roberts are terrific as Clooney and Roberts playing a TV personality and producer respectively. That may seem like a back-handed compliment, but really it’s not. We can’t ever forget who it is exactly we’re watching on the screen; Roberts’ purposely plays against our expectations of the bright, sunny Roberts that we know and Clooney amps up that Clooney celebrity aura to make Gates a larger-than-life figure with both admirably achieving their goals.
In addition to securing great performances, Foster gets to indulge in moments of subtle, if no less blistering, moments of black comedy. She takes us outside of the studio and presents short scenes of the global audience watching the action unfold onscreen—making the point that a social media drenched society can no longer tell the difference between reality and reality TV. People watch the hostage situation play out with no understanding of what’s going on; it’s like they’re waiting for Simon Cowell to tell them if Budwell will advance to the next round or not.
Though it’s not a “perfect” movie, Money Monster is a swift, fun way to spend an evening. And, as a bonus, there’s not one superhero in sight.
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.