In the past few years, we’ve seen quite a few movies inspired by rage over class inequality and corruption among the wealthy. In fact, the subject has already been done so well that it almost feels played out.
We’ve already got The Wolf of Wall Street, a three-hour depiction of the sickening debauchery and irresponsible excess that happened behind closed doors while the rest of us got screwed over. And we also got The Big Short, which examined the 2008 housing market crash in exhaustive detail. After those two critically lauded Oscar nominees from only a couple of years ago, what more could any other film add to the conversation?
Well, Money Monster found a decent answer to that question.
The title refers to a financial news show hosted by Lee Gates (George Clooney). The show has a very hyperbolic and brash presentation, style over substance in a way that was clearly modeled after Jim Kramer’s “Mad Money”. This was a problem for me out of the gate, as I thought Kramer’s audience and credibility had gone the way of the Bear Stearns stock he had told everyone to purchase. Then again, if millions of people are still going to Dr. Oz for medical advice, I guess it’s possible that Kramer and those like him still have their loyal followers. More importantly, it plays into a greater statement about our treatment of current events, but we’ll get back to that.
Anyway, Gates was extremely bullish on a revolutionary financial firm called IBIS. So bullish, in fact, that he’s still endorsing the company after a computer glitch cost them $800 million. And right when he’s in the middle of explaining why, an uninvited guest comes into the studio.
Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, presumably because Anton Yelchin was unavailable) sunk his mother’s inheritance into IBIS on Gates’ recommendation, so of course all that money went up in smoke when IBIS crashed. With nothing left to lose, Kyle storms the Money Monster studio with a gun and two suicide vests: one for Gates and one for IBIS CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). The latter was scheduled to come in that day, you see, before he took a plane to places unknown and now nobody knows when he’s coming back.
So now Kyle is barging onto live national TV, ranting about how a massive $800 million fortune suddenly vanished and nobody’s asking any questions. Nobody’s going to jail. Nothing’s being done about the glitch that supposedly caused the crash or all the investments that disappeared through nobody’s fault. So now Kyle wants answers, even if he has to kill himself and everyone around him in the process. He’s assisted by Gates and his production crew, partly to stall for time while the NYPD gets into position and partly out of their own curiosity regarding all the shady shit going on.
On one level, this is a scenario that’s becoming all too familiar. Here we have a disaffected and disenfranchised young man with no education, no savings, no marketable skills, and a job that only barely earns him enough to get by. Not only does he feel powerless, but he feels betrayed by the wealthy and powerful elites who suffer no consequence for their greed and dishonesty and incompetence, even as the rest of us are stuck drowning with no help in sight because we had the audacity to trust them. Thusly, like so many mass shooters and terrorist bombers before him, Kyle resorts to outrageous shows of self-destructive violence as his last and only way to make a stand.
Kyle is the heart and soul of this picture, and for better or worse, O’Connell plays this character to the cheap seats. This character is so overblown that when he goes off about class warfare, his rants are so angry and so blunt that the whole film comes off as preachy. Moreover, O’Connell plays this character with such a raging inferiority complex that Kyle is made to look like a total meathead. I very much doubt that this film wanted their avatar of the lower middle class to look like an ignorant caveman, but that’s pretty much exactly what we got. I mean, the character is still quite sympathetic, but there’s such a thing as taking it too far, you know?
Oh, and let’s not forget that this guy was dumb enough to bet his entire life savings on one investment because some guy on TV told him to, instead of diversifying his investments like anyone with an ounce of sense would do. That significantly undercuts any sympathy for the main character. And as if that wasn’t implausible enough, this guy managed to smuggle two suicide vests into a heavily occupied corporate-owned building in post-9/11 New York City. There are several implausibilities in this premise, and the first act resorts to some transparently stupid measures in getting it all to work.
Then we have Dominic West. It should go without saying that nobody casts Jimmy fucking McNulty to play a fine upstanding gentleman (except maybe that one Christmas Carol adaptation with Patrick Stewart as his Uncle Scrooge), especially not in a picture with this premise. From start to finish, the film makes absolutely sure we know in plain and certain terms who the good guys and bad guys are. All of this amounts to a predictable plot that’s entirely void of nuance. And in a suspense thriller like this film is trying to be, that’s a dealbreaker.
Though to be fair, not everyone in the cast has this problem. George Clooney has more than enough charisma and screen presence to play the flashy TV huckster and also the slightly more sympathetic man behind the mask. There’s also Julia Roberts as Patty Fenn, Gates’ longtime director. She does a fantastic job of juggling so many lines of communication while ensuring that everyone gets out alive and everyone watching at home gets a good show. And of course, given that Clooney and Roberts are both seasoned veterans who’ve worked together quite a few times in the past, it should come as no surprise that they both act beautifully off each other.
That said, the real hidden surprise here is Caitriona Balfe, playing the CCO of IBIS. Here’s a character who’s initially charged with acting as the company mouthpiece, though she slowly starts to come around as she investigates her own bosses from the inside. This could easily have been another role void of nuance, but Balfe plays it well and the development arc works beautifully. Alas, the supporting cast also includes a thoroughly wasted Giancarlo Esposito, and Christopher Denham plays a pitifully ineffectual comic relief character.
The screenplay has three credited writers. The story is credited to Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf, two of the driving forces behind Portland’s ongoing fantasy procedural saga, “Grimm”. The final screenplay is credited to DiFiore and Kouf, alongside Jamie Linden, the genius who gave us Dear John, We Are Marshall, and 10 Years. Given the way these credits are laid out, and given how the final movie turned out, I’d totally believe that this script was the length of a TV episode before a fifth-rate writer came along to pad out the running time to feature length.
It’s astounding how much stuff in this movie turned out to be either superfluous or drawn out. Patty is thinking about taking another job elsewhere? Nobody cares. All that stuff about Gates’ personal life? Undercooked and inconsequential. That scene where Gates tries to list off all the reasons why Kyle shouldn’t kill himself? Clooney’s doing his damnedest, but it’s just not paced well enough to have the right punch. Then there’s the scene in which Gates tries to artificially inflate the value of IBIS stock. It helps raise some crucial thematic points (again, we’ll get back to that), but it still comes off as hokey, implausible, and overlong.
But for me, the ultimate example comes at the very beginning, in which an experimental erection cream leads to a series of dick jokes all throughout the first act. Yes, you read that correctly. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, that sounds like something so wildly out of place that it belongs in a different movie entirely, and of course that’s exactly my point.
Obviously, any decent suspense thriller will have storylines that eventually dovetail into a satisfying conclusion. And of course a drop of comic relief is appreciated when the subject matter is this heavy and close to home. But these jokes and detours come off as unnecessary diversions that fail to advance the main plot. And again, that’s a huge problem in suspense thrillers, which have to be lean and tight and consistently paced.
But let’s get back to my comparison at the top of this review — What does this movie bring to the table? To start with, there’s the fact that Wolf of Wall Street and Big Short both neglected to spend much of any screen time on those who lost their savings, their homes, their careers, their pensions, and just about everything else as a direct result of insatiable short-sighted greed on Wall Street. Those films took it for granted that if you want to see the victims of modern financial corruption, you need only look into a mirror. Compare that to this movie, which was built from the ground up to express the frustrations of the endangered middle class and the young adults without a future.
What may be even more impressive is that this movie breaks some entirely new ground (compared with those other two films, I mean) on the subject of mass communication. In several ways and with varying degrees of subtlety, this film examines how the presentation of news as entertainment has entirely warped our perception of crucial ongoing events in the real world. In this 24-hour infinite loop of neverending multimedia consumption, fact and fiction have blurred together to the point where it’s hard to tell one from the other. Unfolding hostage negotiations like these can make for some great drama, which translates into nail-biting tension for those watching at home. It also translates into huge ratings for anyone who covers the unfolding story, even if they have nothing intelligent to say on the subject. Consequently, somewhere along the way, everything gets hyped up and dumbed down to the point where everyone seems to forget how many lives are in very real danger.
We have the ability to instantly connect with total strangers over thousands of miles in the blink of an eye, and yet that emotional distance is still there. A total stranger on your TV or computer probably won’t register as anything more than just another face on a screen. This is especially true of celebrities, politicians, and anyone else who puts so much effort into maintaining a professional and blatantly artificial image at all times. They come off as phony, which makes it harder to remember that they are still real people whose actions have real consequences.
These are all important messages that absolutely must be broadcast and discussed. But here’s the thing: For all their faults, Wolf and Big Short were witty. They were incisive and bold. They were diabolically clever, with no shortage of pitch-black comedy. They helped us laugh at several major American catastrophes, without losing sight of the fact that the joke was ultimately on us, and making sure that we had a good idea of how that happened.
By comparison, Money Monster is as loud, angry, and blunt as a suicide vest. It gets the message across, and to be fair, it’s a crucial message. But a suspense thriller with so little nuance, so few surprises, and so much padding is going to be a chore to sit through. And when a film’s presentation is centered on righteous anger to the point where intelligent and thoughtful commentary takes a backseat, nobody’s going to leave the theater feeling like they learned anything new.
Director Jodie Foster clearly set out to make this film as a message, and I’m not sure she had the ability or the inclination to make this into a compelling thriller. In the hands of a director who could balance the two approaches, this might have been something really special. As it is, I’d say that this is rental or second-run material.