It only makes sense and was, quite frankly, inevitable that a film like Money Monster would come out in 2016, and I’m actually somewhat surprised that it didn’t come sooner. The American public has never been more disillusioned about corruption within the financial sector, so a film that plays to that sense of disempowerment through wish-fulfilling catharsis is a no-brainer for reasonably sizable public appeal on a modest budget that could turn an easy profit for whatever studio wanted to back such a project. The result is a veritable mixed bag; some elements work, others don’t, but it’s easy to see why some will gravitate towards this movie.
Set almost entirely on the set of a fictional stock advice show, Lee Gates (George Clooney, who can play a charismatic douchebag in his sleep) hosts said show when one day, a viewer, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, an impressively versatile talent) hijacks the live broadcast with a gun and a bomb vest strapped to Lee’s chest. Kyle is a working class guy upset that Lee gave him bad investment advice on the show, as an immensely profitable company mysteriously lost a lot of money, causing their stock value to plummet. When it becomes clear to Lee that there’s something happening behind the scenes, he works with his producer (Julia Roberts, decent) to uncover what exactly happened that screwed over so many investors, all while live on the air and with an erratic gunman to keep mollified.
Here’s the biggest problem: there is never any mystery about what happened to the money. The particulars don’t really matter; the CEO of the company is so heavily telegraphed as being guilty of some misbehavior that his protestations of his company’s transparency have an unintentionally comical double meaning. For a film that clearly wants to frame itself as a conspiracy thriller, the conspiracy is laughably thin. This may be why director Jodie Foster made such a concerted effort to keep the film from getting too serious, as she has an impeccable knack for deflating any mounting tension with the most improperly timed attempts at comic relief. It’s an odd choice to simultaneously try to keep us invested in a hostage situation while throwing out quips and banter, and it never quite finds the right balance to make any of it tonally coherent.
However, when the film does opt to take itself and its central theme of corporate corruption seriously, it can deliver. Clooney and Roberts give pretty damn good performances, even managing to have less-than-awkward character arcs that only feel natural because the two have such good chemistry that they don’t even have to spend most of the film in the same room. O’Connell, though, is the breakout star here, effectively conveying a surrogate for the film’s target demographic; working class folks who are frustrated, desperate, and just in need of some god damn answers. He is the main reason that in select moments, the film’s tension becomes very real, which ultimately drives home the point that real people’s lives are ruined in similar (though admittedly less cartoonishly simple) financial schemes all the time.
So, in the end, Money Monster is a bit of a wash. Taken as a whole, the film is a bit of a mess, but certain moments work really well and effectively communicate the film’s thesis. I don’t expect this movie to be a huge financial success, being released just one week after the juggernaut of Captain America, but I expect that it is going to resonate with those who do go to see it, despite some glaring faults. I can’t say I think that it’s worth the price of a theater ticket, but I’m pretty sure that there will be quite a few who disagree with me, based on the cathartic feeling the film was designed to evoke.