George Clooney looks like the kind of guy you could trust. Older, experienced, he seems trustworthy, brimming with advice you could take to the bank. I mean, if you’d buy Nespresso coffee because he told you to, why wouldn’t you take financial guidance as well? A new movie, “Money Monster,” uses that quality, Clooney’s charisma, as the cornerstone of a thriller about misplaced trust, mislaid money and attempted murder.
Clooney is Lee Gates, a loudmouth financial advisor who bellows about investing in stocks and saving for retirement on a live television show called “Money Monster.” Think “Mad Money with Jim Cramer” with just enough details changed to avoid lawsuits and you get the idea. Gates is a self-styled Wiz of Wall Street, a financial shock jock who starts each of his shows with a wild dance number.
Just as his Friday night broadcast is getting underway Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a jilted investor invades the studio and takes Gates, his crew, and producer Patty (Julia Roberts) hostage live on air. “Turn those cameras back on I’m going to shoot him in his head!” He trusted the TV oracle only to lose everything when a high-frequency trading company Gates endorsed called Ibis Clear Capital lost $800 million overnight, tanking the stock market. Kyle is convinced that Wall Street banks are stealing our money and our country and Gates is the emblem of the theft. “I may be the one with the gun,” he says, “but I’m not the criminal here.”
In real time over the next hour Gates learns the human cost of his actions as Kyle as the cameras broadcast every minute to a worldwide audience of millions.
Like the volatile stock market Gates chronicles on his fictional show, “Money Monster’s” story takes many unexpected twist and turns. Unexpected and, as the story unfolds, preposterous. Unable to decide whether it is an exposé of Wall Street’s dirty dealings—much of it breathes the same air as “The Big Short” minus the bubble baths and Anthony Bourdain—a humanist thriller or a comment on the remove we feel watching tragedy through a screen—“If Lee survives we got to get him on the show,” chirps one chat show host watching the action on a monitor—it blends all its ideas into a mushy concoction that is neither one thing or the other. Director Jodie Foster relies on clichés to move the story forward rather than trusting the ideas and rich vein of social commentary that could have been mined from the material. You can’t help but wonder what Sidney Lumet might have done with the same story.
Clooney does the best he can with a script that forces him to behave like a caricature. He’s believable as the cocky on-air host, less so when he has to transform that character into a vulnerable, real human being.
Roberts is trapped in a control room, barking orders through a headset for most of the film, bringing whatever charm there is to be had from a part that is essentially a conduit for information and she tries to unravel the film’s core “where did the money go?” mystery.
The third part of the triumvirate, O’Connell, plays confused/mad quite well, but again is saddled with a role that is dragged down with repetition.
Some of the supporting actors fare a little better, particularly Caitriona Balfe as the CCO who wants to do the right thing, if only she knew what the right thing was and Christopher Denham as a producer who will do anything to please Gates.
“This isn’t good Lee,” Patti says about the action unfolding in the studio. She could have been talking about “Money Monster,” a movie that feels like a missed opportunity to mix intimate life and death drama with an indictment of the wheelers and dealers who play hardball with our money.