In this film Jack O’Connell’s blue collar New Yorker Kyle walks into a TV studio and initiates a hostage situation live on air, strapping a bomb jacket onto Lee Gates, the slick, fast-talking host of a stock-tips show called Money Monster (played by the slick, fast-talking actor George Clooney). In the studio’s control room Julia Roberts’ unruffled director whispers in the ear of her presenter while simultaneously evacuating the rest of the show’s crew. She also keeps the production going (at one point instructing her cameraman to change his angle because gunman Kyle’s face is obscured by a shadow), stalls a trigger-happy police force and begins to investigate the real cause behind a ‘glitch’ in an algorithm that caused a company’s stock value to plummet. The very same glitch is the reason Kyle’s so angry: he lost his entire life savings of $60,000, buying the stock in question after Gates tipped it as a sure-fire winner, hence his direct act of retribution. Yet despite a somewhat fragile state of mind Kyle clearly understands that the decision to buy was his alone, and as such he doesn’t want to be reimbursed; instead he wants to find out why the stock dropped so rapidly over such a short period of time, and he wants the man in charge of the company – Dominic West’s slippery CEO – to apologise live on air.
Jodie Foster’s second film as a director isn’t a straightforward thriller. Money Monster is a satire as well, and although its jointly-written screenplay targets financial industry greed and dishonesty, that’s not the sole subject on the receiving end. It also takes broad sideswipes at television and news reporting, and I guess in that sense you could see it as a kind of modern, flashy update of something like Network or Dog Day Afternoon, though both of those films are superior and have a greater feel for anarchic public responses. Money Monster does share the black comedy of Sidney Lumet’s mid-1970s brace, though, and puts forward a similar judgment of the ethics behind live TV broadcasting, examining the way in which corporate media behaviour can exacerbate an already-dangerous situation. As in Network the TV station behind Money Monster keeps the cameras rolling despite having no control over its output, aware that its viewing figures are going through the roof (although ultimately Kyle’s the man who insists the cameras stay rolling). Dog Day Afternoon springs to mind because it’s also about a desperate-but-sympathetic man who struggles to handle the hostage situation he initiates, and Money Monster has its own amusing equivalent to the telephone conversation that takes place between Al Pacino’s Sonny and Chris Sarandon’s Leon, while the two films share similar exterior scenes in which rubbernecking members of the public have gathered to watch the crisis unfold first-hand.
Foster’s film cuts between the studio, the company that’s under belated scrutiny and a variety of people watching the events unfold on screens around the world: New York brokers in bars, for example, as well as a pair of Icelandic hackers, some hipsters who briefly pause their table football game to watch the news and a party hosted by high-rolling South Koreans; most of them seem to treat the crisis as if it were a piece of entertainment drama rather than a serious life-or-death situation. Some of these briefly-glimpsed characters later become integral to a rather silly plot in which the greed of an individual is presented as the real catalyst for these events, as opposed to the failings of the financial system as a whole, and I think by taking this easy option the screenplay fails as a critique of the financial industry. It doesn’t really help when the few characters of note who are employed by this company are portrayed in black-and-white terms as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or ‘ethically sound’ as opposed to ‘morally bankrupt’. Films like Margin Call and The Big Short are far more successful within this milieu because of the shades of grey they present, and there seems to be a considerable understanding of that world within those films. Money Monster is smooth enough as a slightly-amusing satire about the media; as soon as it tries to delve into the world of high finance or there’s an attempt to move the plot on it becomes a jerky, stuttery beast. There’s very little depth or evident understanding of the financial subject matter at hand, while there’s also some wholly unnecessary plotting, such as the decision to make the entirely competent PR chief at the centre of the shitstorm (Catriona Balfe) the lover of West’s elusive CEO.
The film has a quick pace, playing out in real time in a way that’s similar to Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth, and for the most part it’s propelled by the sheer desperation experienced by its central trio: Clooney’s presenter is fearful for his life and the stress of the situation forces him to recognise that his own garrulousness and self-centred nature is a mask to cover-up loneliness and self-loathing. O’Connell shouts a lot to convey Kyle’s panic and illogical thinking – it’s an OK American debut for a promising actor, and he convinces through red-faced bluster – while Roberts’ director is put under pressure by a number of different parties but remains strong and decisive throughout. The opening acts within the TV studio that place all three in close proximity are attention-grabbing, but the film loses some momentum when the action moves outside of that hyper-stylised environment for the final act, although I suppose Money Monster is short enough for that not to matter too much. It’s hampered more severely by some dodgy supporting performances (notably West and his former co-star in The Wire, Chris Bauer), while there are a couple of prime entries in the book of Brits Doing Distinctly Wonky American Accents. The screenplay, sadly, has some terribly clunky moments. Kyle’s wife at one point explains to a police officer that she hasn’t been watching the news that day because she has been working in a glass box underground, a line that fairly batters you around the ear’ole with a big neon sign that blinks ‘JUST IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING!’, while the globe-wide investigation into the practices of the company in question is so contrived – and malpractice is uncovered so speedily – it completely beggars any belief you may be holding on to. It’s not a dud, by any means: some of the acting is good and at times it’s quite funny, but unfortunately some of the execution is sloppy.
Directed by: Jodie Foster.
Written by: Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf, Jamie Linden.
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Catriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito.
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique.
Editing: Matt Chesse.
Music: Dominic Lewis.
Running Time: 98 minutes.