Film Review: “Money Monster” cashes out

George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Jodie Foster team up for a disappointingly cynical thriller about the economic crisis and media complicity

As economic populism sweeps the land this election season, who can we trust to encapsulate and express the rage of the little guy? Who will expose the ways in which Wall Street, the media, and perhaps capitalism itself have conspired to enrich the many at the expense of the few?

If you said “Hollywood,” then I’ve got a can’t-miss stock tip for you. Get out your credit card and hold for our next operator.

The most disappointing thing about “Money Monster” is that it comes from some of Tinseltown’s most decorated and genuine liberals. Star George Clooney’s credentials include lionizing Edward R. Murrow and publicizing genocide in the Sudan. Julia Roberts made environmental activism sexy, and once reportedly said “’Republican’ comes in the dictionary just after ‘reptile’ and just above ‘repugnant.’” And director Jodie Foster, while more publicly enigmatic, has demonstrated through her choice of roles that she’s somewhere left of center.

George Clooney stars as Lee Gates in TriStar Pictures' MONEY MONSTER.

George Clooney stars as Lee Gates in TriStar Pictures’ MONEY MONSTER.

So how these three managed to create one of the most cynical, manipulative movies about economic inequality I’ve ever seen is something of a mystery. The problems begin, though, as they so often so, with the screenplay.

Clooney plays Lee Gates, one of those cable TV financial analysts who use wacky shenanigans and zippy computer graphics to distract viewers from the hollowness of their so-called advice. He’s taken hostage live on the air by disgruntled, working-class investor Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), who lost everything he had when a company called Ibis experienced a computer glitch that made $800 million vanish. Strapping Gates into a suicide vest and demanding that the show go on, he airs his grievances while the cops gather outside the building and producer Patty Finn (Roberts) manages things from the booth.

Just imagine what Paddy Chayefsky could do with this setup. It’s all there—the systemic corruption, the haplessness of the ordinary Joe, the complicity of the media—teed up and ready to be knocked out of the park. But three writers, a talented director, and two of the most likeable movie stars in the world somehow can’t convince us to care about any of these people.

Ultimately, of course, that’s what it’s about, and it’s the defense that mainstream filmmakers often fall back on when making political films: it’s not about the issues, it’s about the characters. On both fronts, “Money Monster” fails. The only one who evolves at all is Gates, and with Clooney in the role, we know he’ll end up on the side of the angels. The real villain, naturally, isn’t the system, or the gullibility of Americans, or our ingrained get-rich-quick materialism. It’s one bad apple, and it’s obvious from the get-go who it is (not to spoil things, but the actor starred in an acclaimed HBO series as a character whose name rhymes with “McZulty.”)

Even if it were a smarter, angrier film, “Money Monster” would still be guilty of sloppiness, which is not something one usually associates with Jodie Foster. The movie ostensibly takes place in real time, but there are a number of obvious cheats, including one moment where Roberts tells Clooney in his earpiece that she has a complicated thing to explain to him. Foster then cuts away to another character for literally three seconds, returning as Roberts says something like “So that’s the deal.”

Also, even though it’s established that this movie takes place on a Friday, during the day, the Dow Jones ticker on the bottom of the screen of Clooney’s show never changes, at least that I noticed. It’s stuck at 18 thousand and something, even though the movie’s events would likely have sparked some sort of stock market spike. Maybe trading was halted, but if so, no one ever mentions it.

That may seem like quibbling, but it’s indicative of the laziness that infects the whole movie. And I don’t care who knows it: I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!

(98 minutes, rated R, opens Thursday, May 12, at the Living Room Theaters and other locations) GRADE: D+

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