For almost two-thirds of Money Monster, the film’s protagonists never leave a television studio. Yet the movie never feels claustrophobic, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Hostage dramas ought to be unpredictable, edge-of-the-seat affairs. I had prepared myself for a session of nail chewing, but here I sit, still in need of a manicure. Money Monster has heart, but sadly no edge.
Lee Gates (George Clooney) plays the cocky host of ‘Money Monster’, a show which gives you stock tips and other nuggets of financial wisdom. Sample this pearl that Gates makes a habit of repeating – “Without risk, there is no reward.” He hits a buzzer and yells, “Get some balls!” You get the drift. Not a man you’d like to have dinner with, and as the film makes clear, nobody does. His director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) looks exasperated, but is also indulgent. The show, with its dancers and tacky graphics, works. Enter Kyle Budwell (Jack O’ Connell) with a gun and a bomb vest. The drama begins.
A stock tip that Gates had given has left Budwell bankrupt. He wants answers. He wants the cameras pointed at him. He wants his revolution to be televised. It soon becomes clear, though, that Budwell is guileless. His finger rests on a detonator, but he isn’t going to press that switch. His gun will only be fired into the air. The initial fear we see on Gates’ face dissipates. He’s soon back to being brash.
Jodie Foster, star of films such as Panic Room and The Silence of the Lambs, should of course remember the worth of a gnawing alarm. But when directing Money Monster, the memory of that steady suspense seems to have been sacrificed for commentary. Wall Street and its slickly gelled traders are clearly the bad guys here. Budwell is but a stand-in for the small fish, the folk who rise to the bait of multipliable dollars. He might have had a gun and a bomb, but I grew to have sympathy for the devil. He was far from menacing. Even Clooney liked him. Call it the Stocks-Home Syndrome.
Clooney, it must be said, does impress with his portrayal of Gates, the bumptious television prophet. In one scene, Gates tries to convince those watching his plight – there are thousands who’ve turned on their TV sets by now – to buy shares of Ibis, the company that tanked, leaving people like Budwell penniless. It doesn’t quite scream out ‘sound investment’.
Gates thankfully has a plan. If everyone contributes just a little, the price of Ibis shares will rise and both he and Budwell will be given a lifeline. “We’re human beings. We’re not computers. We have a conscience,” he tells his audience. The line sounds obvious and vapid, but the earnestness with which Clooney delivers it gives it a remarkable impact. Gates’ transition from millionaire anchor to conscientious journalist is authentic.
Money Monster, after Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, is for George Clooney and Julia Roberts, a fourth outing. And in their relationship of star and director, it is Roberts who astonishes with her composure. Often reduced to a voice on an earpiece, a reminder of her presence is assuring. She’ll save the day, you think, and Julia always kinda does.
More than Clooney and Roberts, however, the one actor who deserves a more special mention is Emily Meade. Playing Holly, Budwell’s girlfriend, Meade has but a few minutes of screen time. But in that little window, she wows with her demonstration of chagrin and anger. She is simply astounding.
It becomes hard not to think of the 2008 financial crisis when watching this film. Greedy sharks fill their pockets while simpler lives are left devastated. In the times of Donald Trump, Foster’s movie serves as an apt critique of avarice. At Cannes this year, Clooney even blamed cable news networks for inadvertently propping up a boisterous Trump. “Money Monster talks about the evolution of what has become the cross between news and entertainment,” he said.
The movie’s politics cannot be faulted, and perhaps justifiably it got a four-minute ovation at Cannes. The applause, though, might have lasted longer if like Lee Gates, Foster too had deviated from her underwhelming script.
Rating: 3 stars