Five minutes into Money Monster I was worried George Clooney was losing it a little bit. A lot of great actors (looking at you Robert De Niro) seem to reach a point at which they start taking easy paychecks to do roles in which they humiliate themselves. And in those first few minutes, that’s what it looks like in Money Monster. Clooney plays Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer-esque financial TV show host who starts his show with bizarre pageants and dances. Imagine Hollywood’s icon of classiness bursting onto a stage doing a boxing charade/hip-hop dance surrounded by scantily clad models, and you’ve got it.
Fortunately, the opening skits don’t define the tone of the movie (and even better, they actually serve a purpose). Once he’s made his introductions, Gates rolls smoothly into the Cramer role, analysing hot stock stories and telling his viewers what to buy and what to sell. As he goes about it, producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) talks into his ear from backstage, and we quickly get the idea: they’ve been doing this a while and they’ve got it down to a science.
On this day, however, things are a little different on “Money Monster” (the name of the show). A large firm called IBIS Clear Capital has crashed dramatically as a result of a faulty trading algorithm, and Gates is planning on interviewing CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) on air. That plan goes sideways when Camby falls off the radar, though. And in the midst of a scramble to find an IBIS official to interview via video conference, a delivery man makes his way onto the set behind Gates.
That delivery man is Kyle (Jack O’Connell), a down-on-his-luck citizen who lost his life savings investing in IBIS after Gates said on air that it was “safer than a savings account.” He’s brought a gun and an explosive vest onto the set and forces Gates to wear the vest. I mentioned that Gates’s goofy skits serve a purpose. Basically, because everyone is used to seeing ridiculous spectacles on “Money Monster,” the crazed gunman taking over the set is initially ignored as a joke.
Things become serious rather quickly, though; Kyle proves that his gun is very real and reveals his determination to hold Gates and IBIS responsible for his losses. From that point on, the movie becomes one long, tense hostage situation as Gates (and Fenn in his ear) tries to appease Kyle and get to the bottom of the IBIS crash, all while on the air. To summarise much more would spoil things a little bit, but suffice it to say the situation has enough twists and turns to stay gripping throughout. In other words, it’s not just Phonebooth in a new setting.
The criticism I suspect most people want to level at this movie is that its anti-Wall Street message is a little too overt or preachy. Frankly, that’s how I expected to feel. While there is certainly a lot there about financial corruption—there’s more to the IBIS crash than an algorithm glitch—the film feels more like a piece of entertainment than, say, a Bernie Sanders campaign ad. It’s not The Big Short, seeking to explain the corruption of the wealthy; it’s a thriller that knows its audience is increasingly familiar with that corruption already and spins a story out of it.
Interestingly enough, a different kind of preaching actually showed through a little bit more. As much as it’s about Wall Street corruption, Money Monster is also about how numb we’ve become to real dangers and tragedies, so long as we’re entertained. We frequently get glimpses of the audience watching what’s unfolding on “Money Monster,” and the prevailing sentiment is clear: this is great TV!
But more than anything else, this is just fun. It’s not the sort of film that will win him any awards, but Clooney is absolutely on top of his game as Lee Gates. Roberts is effortlessly effective, O’Connell holds his own alongside seasoned pros, and Jodie Foster’s direction is smooth and clever. The movie is tense, keeps you guessing, and even ends up being surprisingly funny throughout.
Money Monster is a great time at the movies.
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