Having taken the girl-power movie to new highs (writing “Thelma & Louise”) and lows (writing and directing “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”), helmer Callie Khouri settles for a routine payday with “Mad Money.” Banking on the appealing chemistry of Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah — with co-star Katie Holmes awkwardly upsetting the balance — this strained heist comedy about three cash-strapped femmes is watchable enough for a few reels, but lacks the requisite wit and amoral energy to capitalize on its get-rich-quick premise. January item could generate some distaff interest, but will earn most of its coin on homevid.
Prologue cuts among the larcenous leading ladies as they frantically try to dispose of their ill-gotten gains before the cops arrive. Addressing the camera with the not-so-insightful adage “We’re all capable of anything,” middle-aged Bridget (Keaton) takes the narrative back three years to the moment when she and her newly unemployed husband, Don (Ted Danson), found themselves on the brink of financial ruin.
More than $200,000 in debt and in danger of losing the house, Bridget is forced to look for a job. After a montage comically illustrating how ill-equipped a certain breed of upper-crust white woman is for the corporate world, Bridget settles for a lowly janitor’s post — at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. How convenient.
Actually, not so convenient, given the bank’s intensely routinized and scrutinized security system (random searches, cameras everywhere, cash carts kept under lock and key). But desperate Bridget spies a loophole and eventually persuades two fellow workers — wary single mom Nina (Latifah) and young, ditzy Jackie (Holmes) — to help her pull off a robbery or two.
There’s something ingenious, and even halfway defensible, about stealing old, worn-out money that’s already been earmarked for shredding, and “Mad Money” derives most of its meager pleasures from its central heist sequence — which, though lacking in Brian De Palma-esque visual bravado, is tightly edited and cleverly worked out.
But even as it aims for a loose, light-fingered touch, Khouri’s direction is lukewarm at best. Regular flash-forwards to the inevitable police interrogations (a device employed with more finesse in Spike Lee’s “Inside Man,” among others) further undercut the suspense and audience involvement, and soon there’s little to do but watch as the women’s stealing spree spirals predictably out of control.
In the end, “Mad Money” lacks the guts to either embrace its characters’ breezy amorality or critique it: While prudent Nina functions as the film’s weak conscience, pic repeatedly shows the three women screaming with delight as they literally roll in the dough. It’s the kind of image that should draw audiences into a spirit of gleeful collusion, but instead feels phony, even condescending (look, rich people playing poor people who become rich people!).
It’s not long before their layabout husbands get in on the action, modestly upping the emotional ante: While Jackie’s hubby (Adam Rothenberg) is no brighter than she is, Danson has some warmly amusing moments as Bridget’s more rational better half. But a romantic thread pairing Nina with bank security guard Barry (Roger Cross) feels cheap, pointing up both the implausibility and the moral ambivalence of Glenn Gers’ script (adapted from the British telepic “Hot Money”).
Keaton is a witty comedienne under any circumstances; here, she manages to make Bridget’s lack of scruples seem cheery and borderline cute, emphasizing her resourcefulness and devil-may-care high spirits in the worst of situations. She’s smartly held in check by Latifah’s sassy, sympathetic Nina, who, of the three protags, seems to benefit the most from the pic’s otherwise drab lensing.
Faring markedly worse than her co-thesps, however, is Holmes, whose character’s compulsive habit and sole defining trait — listening to music and dancing on the job — gives her little to work with.
Brent Thomas’ production design ably conjures the cold, dreary environs of a high-security federal bank. Though set in Missouri, pic was shot entirely in Louisiana and looks none the worse for it.