How silly do you like your summer blockbusters? I guess the general point of them is the element of frivolity; how seriously can you take Nic Cage and John Travolta switching faces, Bruce Willis walking through Harlem with a huge racial slur emblazoned upon his person, Helen Hunt valiantly battling tornadoes, Tom Cruise catching criminals before they’ve offended. Money Monster doesn’t stop there, though: it really wants to make a Big Important Point about economic elites and the rigged monetary system. This B.I.P. doesn’t quite gel into the world of a pure popcorn potboiler.
George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the insufferable Jim Cramer-like host of a finance television programme based so heavily on Mad Money I’d be shocked if the filmmakers didn’t pay royalties. Lately, he’s been touting stock from a company called Ibis, which totally isn’t Bear Sterns. Unfortunately, the stock tanked, wrecking the savings of poor parcel deliveryman Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell). Back against the wall, Budwell sneaks onto the set during one of Gates’s live shows, points a gun at him, and forces him to don an explosive-laden vest.
Okay, who hasn’t wanted to punch Jim Cramer in the face? There is a brief period of time where Money Monster works as a kind of low-level wish fulfilment against those for whom finance is nothing more than frivolous entertainment. But the plot quickly escalates: Gates was personally duped by Ibis, causing him unwittingly to lead his viewers astray, and a huge conspiracy is a-brewin’ going all the way to Ibis’s CEO.
I was reminded of Andrew Davis’s great The Fugitive, which begins as an action-adventure picture, and pivots to intrigue as Dr Richard Kimball discovers the machinations of Devlin MacGregor re Provasic. Of course, that film slowly becomes a procedural, as Kimball spends months uncovering evidence while evading the pursuit of Samuel Gerard. Money Monster asks us to believe that the entire Ibis conspiracy is unveiled from only a few hours of digging from Gates and his producer Patty (Julia Roberts). Director Jodie Foster never lets her film take itself so seriously, however, as to elicit contemptuous eyerolls from the audience. Her tongue is in her cheek, and it’s all in good fun.
The interesting thing about Money Monster is that it is very good at making its point about the financial crisis, and equally good at being an entertaining popcorn flick—but these two separately good facets of the movie don’t really converge in a satisfying way. That is to say, it’s not successful at making its point and being popcorn entertainment at the same time. I had to keep reframing how I was watching it: a The Big Short-style satire or a Die Hard With a Vengeance-style actioner? It is each of these in repertory—never simultaneously.
George Clooney seems to be having a blast in his satirical role; he’s exactly the right combination of smarmy and intelligent. Julia Roberts isn’t really given a lot to do, but her easy rapport with Clooney creates a strong emotional connection from Gates to the audience. The real pleasure is watching Jack O’Connell. In Starred Up and Unbroken, he revealed himself as a fiercely emotional actor, drawing from a deep, Brando-esque well. He’s the emotional anchor here; whenever Money Monster seems close to veering off into abject silliness, O’Connell course-corrects to keep it on target.
Eventually, a cloud of inevitability looms over the film. ‘I came in here knowing there was only one way this show was gonna end,’ O’Connell’s character says. I can’t tell if that line is poignant or too on the nose.