Film Review: Money Monster

Even money doesn’t talk in this soulless, by-the-numbers rendering of a promising, higher-than-a-kite concept that has a Jim Cramer-like TV stock market guru taken hostage by a disgruntled everyman investor.
Major Releases

Beyond its story premise and the exceptional talent on board (director Jodie Foster and co-stars George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jack O’Connell), Money Monsterarrives with considerable expectations. These tease with the possibilities of the humor, dazzle and insights of a spate of recent (and not-so-recent) finance- and TV celebrity-themed dark dramedies, like The Big Shortor King of Comedy. But the prediction here is longterm negative following a brief jolt with its IPO of a theater bow.

The Money Monster writing team hits the predictable marks for a financial thriller, and the results suggest a screenplay spit out by IBM’s Watson. The story largely unfolds on the set of the much-watched financial show “Money Monster,” a thinly veiled fictional counterpart to CNBC’s “Mad Money.” Standing in for the oft-respected but sometimes loathed motor-mouth Jim Cramer is Clooney as Lee Gates, a slick, fast-talking, ever-fidgety financial guru who hosts his popular show not just as a stock whiz, but also as a sometimes costumed showman who dances his way into viewers’ hearts. Gates has indispensable help in the control room from take-charge Patty (Julia Roberts), his longtime director, and producer/gofer Ron (Christopher Denham), whose job responsibilities include alerting his boss just before going on-air as to the existence of a new Viagra-type drug.

But other, more troubling news arrives mere hours before the cameras turn on: Ibis Clear Capital, a company Gates hyped as a great buy, lost the better part of a billion dollars due to a mysterious algorithm “glitch.” With Ibis CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) unreachable—in typical mogul fashion, he’s zipping around the globe in his private jet—Lee must instead rely on Ibis CCO Diane (Caitriona Balfe) for damage control.

Such complications are way beyond young 20s Brooklyn (or is it Bronx, Queens or Staten Island?) truck driver Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a distraught investor who, at Lee’s urgings, dumped all his money into the company. Enraged and desperate, Kyle sneaks onto the “Money Monster” set, straps Lee into a vest of explosives and demands $800 million in reparations to all the Ibis shareholders who lost money.

The stand-off is televised live as Lee, Patty and the police tangle with Kyle. There’s the usual tick-tock countdown to disaster and occasional diversions for plot enrichment. One detour occurs when Ron, called to assist his hostage coworkers, is found in flagrante with a show assistant, having been tasked by Lee with testing the effectiveness of the aforementioned erectile ointment. (Check box next to: Add sex and sizzle to the plot.) Another detour has Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend Molly (Emily Meade), in one of the film’s rare humorous bits, slamming her paramour on-camera for being such a loser.

Intermittent shots show the police authorities mobilizing, but even Giancarlo Esposito as Captain Powell has precious little to do beyond barking familiar orders. Some suspense is whipped up in other corners: that algorithm gone awry and Camby gone missing. And, of course, there’s the bad guy, who’s ultimately someone other than the pathetic Kyle.

On the plus side, Money Monster does take some whacks at the big money enablers and finance finaglers who manipulate the market and hurt ordinary folk like the film’s truck driver anti-hero. (Fleeting references to esoteria like algorithms, aka “algos,” and quants might resonate with sophisticates.) And young British actor O’Connell, so remarkable in Starred Up, ’71and Unbroken,stretches as a convincing New Yawker.

Lee’s transformation from slickster cynic to quasi-mensch, however, is superficially handled, and Money Monster’s messy ending doesn’t deliver the wallop or relief the film needs. Potentially of interest here to techies is the way Foster and DP Matthew Libatique smoothly alternate between capturing the visuals with broadcast and film cameras. The story gets to breathe a bit when characters move outside the studio to various Manhattan financial district locations. (Check off the de rigueur hovering helicopter.) Brief detours to South Korea, South Africa and Iceland also figure loosely into the plot.

In the end, Money Monster boasts nary an authentically surprising, witty or emotional moment. On the contrary, this cinematic equivalent of a pre-fab house reeks with inauthenticity. Yes, box office does rival the stock market for unpredictability, but IBM’s Watson needs to go back to film school.

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