When you break apart the essential elements of “Money Monster,” Jodie Foster’s taut yet sporadically odd hostage drama, few of them seem to completely work. As an indictment of Wall Street chicanery, it’s largely toothless; as a pure thriller, it only quickens the pulse once or twice; as a conspiracy saga, its central mystery falls flat.
Yet somehow the film hangs together surprisingly well, thanks to on-point performances from George Clooney and Julia Roberts, a sprinkle of obtuse humor and Foster’s streamlined direction, which takes style notes from the likes of “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Inside Man” in the service of a far more lightweight confection. It may not linger long in the memory after credits roll, and what multiplex audiences make of the film is anyone’s guess, but in a landscape short on no-frills grown-up entertainment, it’s worth the modest time investment.
The film stars Clooney as cable news host Lee Gates. A transparent stand-in for Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money,” Lee is a shameless self-promoter who deals out stock tips with the help of hip-hop backup dancers, wild costumes and a morning zoo assortment of goofy sound effects. His long-suffering producer Patty Fenn (Roberts) is planning to take a job across town, and as the station staff gets ready for the day’s live taping, Lee prepares for a particularly delicate tap-dancing routine.
Ibis Clear Capital, a company whose stock Lee has been touting for months, somehow just lost $800 million of capital through unclear circumstances, and the company’s Irish corporate communications officer, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) is standing by via satellite with talking points in hand. Any worries she might have of being grilled by Lee on camera are assuaged by Patty, who tells her, “We don’t do ‘gotcha’ journalism here. Hell, we don’t do journalism, period.”
Foster and editor Matt Chesse deftly capture the controlled chaos of live TV in the early going, cutting between the broadcast and the control booth, with Patty feeding Lee lines into his earpiece. (The decision to stage the film in an approximation of real-time pays off handsomely.) One gets so caught up in the ins-and-outs of the production that the presence of a hoodied deliveryman in the wings initially goes unnoticed, at least until he springs onto the set with a pistol in hand, taking the whole soundstage hostage.
The interloper is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a minimum wage-earning factotum from Queens, and with great haste he forces Lee into a bomb vest, clutching the dead-man’s switch in his hand. Kyle lost his entire savings due to Lee’s stock advice, and he threatens to scorch the whole studio unless Ibis gives him a satisfactory explanation of the “computer glitch” that sent its stock price tumbling.
The film is at its best in these tense early scenes, as Kyle makes his case, Lee tries to use his mediagenic charm to talk him down — generally making things much worse in the process — and Patty runs triage before her TV producer instincts kick in and she starts moving the cameras around for a better shot. The world watches the standoff on the small screen, an NYPD chief (Giancarlo Esposito) strategizes a SWAT raid, and Diane desperately tries to locate her boss, Ibis’ jet-setting CEO (Dominic West).
As the standoff gets more and more involved, an increasing degree of preposterousness seeps into the proceedings, and Foster can’t keep up the pace she sets at the start. The ultimate resolution is a bit of a bust, and the late-game introduction of new plot elements like stoned Icelandic computer hackers feels like something out of a low-budget ’90s thriller. (Exactly how the subplot of a Lee underling test-driving a new erectile-dysfunction drug made it past the final cut is a mystery.) Credited to three screenwriters, the plot hurtles forward efficiently, but the film’s underlying metaphors are ultimately muddled, pulled in too many directions at once.
Unlike last year’s “The Big Short,” “Money Monster’s” skewering of the financial industry is too superficial to draw any real blood, but it arrives at an unusually relevant historical juncture. With two very different populist voter uprisings lifting the presidential candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, one could see Lee as a fittingly fatuous proxy for the out-of-touch punditocracy that failed to predict them, too wrapped up in the inside-baseball shadow plays of finance and politics to realize how profoundly policies and market dips affect real people.
But Clooney’s performance lifts the character above a mere straw man. Lee is obviously a clown, a thrice-divorced shuck-and-jive infotainer who seems as surprised as anyone to learn his advice was ever taken seriously. (He’s introduced while texting on the toilet, and Foster gives a nod to his casual sexism when he guilelessly refers to a CCO as “the PR girl.”) In Clooney’s hands, however, he’s hardly a villain, and as broad as the performance gets, the actor smartly underplays its overall arc, as this master B.S. artist slowly realizes there are levels of doublespeak and skullduggery that even he can’t abide.
As the end-of-his-rope hijacker, O’Connell lays the blustery outer-borough shtick on a bit thick, while Roberts holds the screen well despite being confined to a control panel for most of the film. (Given how much of her dialogue is delivered via Lee’s earpiece, hers is almost a voice-over role.) Yet the show is almost stolen entirely by Emily Meade as Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend, brought in by police to attempt an intervention that takes a hilarious left turn. And perhaps that’s appropriate: a well-played minor character walking away with a well-crafted, yet ultimately minor movie.