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Big money Wall Street gets bashed by big money Hollywood in Money Monster, a timely, moderately engaging real-time thriller about a live-TV hostage drama that unfortunately lacks any suspense whatsoever. George Clooney romps gleefully as a Jim Cramer-like broadcast financial commentator until a disaffected young intruder straps an explosive vest on him, forcing Julia Roberts, as the show’s producer, to try to save the day while the whole country watches. Opening Friday in the wake of its non-competing Cannes Film Festival premiere, the Sony release looks to do moderate business with older audiences amid a field of younger-skewing May openings.
One of the scarier impressions created by Jodie Foster’s peppy, upright film is that more people may take their financial advice from a guy like Clooney’s cynical, clown-like Lee Gates — who issues glib pronouncements on the market while enacting pranks and showing clips from monster and horror films — than from more sober-minded analysts. Too rich himself to even care anymore, Gates has made finance into just one more branch of the entertainment industry, where any misguided predictions can just be tossed aside and forgotten like yesterday’s bad joke.
Unfortunately for him this time, a fan who has taken his advice too much to heart decides to exact revenge. Working-class stiff Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) has lost all his money — $60,000 — based on Gates’ enthusiasm for an outfit called Ibis Clear Capital, whose stock has just tanked overnight. About 10 minutes into the film, Kyle manages to slip into the studio and suddenly has Gates looking like an ISIS captive, ready to be blown up in front of a worldwide audience if Kyle doesn’t like what comes out of the older man’s mouth. Much better to be victimized by Ibis than ISIS, the TV pundit might have quipped.
The unsteady Gates has an advantage in being equipped with a virtually invisible earpiece, which allows producer Patty Fenn (Roberts) to feed him instructions and advice on what to say and how to behave. At first, of course, they have to play ball with Kyle, to figure out what he really wants and how he reacts. As he seismically conveyed in the British prison drama Starred Up three years back, O’Connell is great at conveying bottled-up anger as well as its shocking release. Part of the problem in the script by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf is that Kyle explodes at the beginning and, having shot the works, soon lets his anger subside. By the final stretch, he has very little to say at all, leaving it to the rich and famous to sort things out.
Although the virtually real-time format is maintained (there would seem to be a bit of cheating here and there, given the variety of locations and time zones introduced), the story fans out as Patty bears down by phone on Ibis’ communications director Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), whose job it is to protect the reputation of her jet-setting CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) but whose official stories about the boss soon crumble as his chronic lying becomes irrefutable.
The real-time conceit is ready-made to serve the cause of suspense, and it should be remembered that Clooney has shown a rare predilection among contemporary artists for the format, having done live broadcasts of both E.R. and Fail Safe for television. Unfortunately, as a director, Foster shows no knack or instinct for building tension; her style is strictly presentational, brisk and efficient, but with no sly trickery, desire to surprise or to forge technique that suggests an imaginative approach to storytelling. There’s nothing subversive or disquieting in the imagery or editing, which is to say that she learned little about creating suspense from working with the likes of Scorsese, Demme and Fincher.
Money Monster therefore emerges as a pretty ordinary film about an extraordinary predicament, one in which the writers contrived to bring all the principals together down on Wall Street. The wrap-up, and the way it too easily employs both comeuppance and tragedy, is rather too neat for real life, and there’s a feel-good aspect to it as well in the way the sneaky, morals-free culprit is forced to be held to account in the most public and embarrassing way possible. It’s a fantasy, in other words.
While pointed at times, the script should have been a couple of notches wittier and more caustic than it is, and a few vivid character actors surrounding the big stars would have been welcome as well — the sort of things that the old Hollywood provided as a matter of course.
Clooney doesn’t play a doofus here as he has done repeatedly for the Coen brothers, but his Lee Gates could be a smarter, more successful but jaded second cousin to those rascals. Attached to a phone or microphone most of the time, Roberts has little to play other than on-point efficiency through most of the tight running time, and her best scenes involve her exchanges with the fellow female executive intriguingly played by Balfe (intriguing in that the actress makes you aware that there’s much more to her character than meets the eye or that is touched upon in the script). West has no trouble letting the audience feel all the scorn it can summon for the heedlessly amoral, and criminal, big-money guy, by which time poor, working-class Kyle has been frustratingly sidelined in favor of the fat cats.
Production: TriStar Pictures, Smokehouse, Allegiance Theater
Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriana Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo
Director: Jodie Foster
Screenwriters: Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf, story by Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf
Producers: Daniel Dubiecki, Lara Alameddine, George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Executive producers: Kerry Orent, Tim Crane, Regina Sculley, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Kevin Thompson
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Editor: Matt Chesse
Music: Dominic Lewis
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Rated R, 98 minutes
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