Money Monster is a dose of liberal medicine coated in conservative cinematic sugar. It’s no surprise that it stars George Clooney, who likes to keep his finger on the political pulse of America. Clooney has ventured into topical territory in front of and behind the camera — from the Middle Eastern oil industry in Syriana to the corrupt presidential campaign cycle in The Ides of March. In Money Monster, he infiltrates the American economy. But, like the film itself, his character barely scratches the surface of our financial fears.
Sensitively directed by Jodie Foster, the film revolves around a flashy show in the vein of CNBC’s Mad Money, which turns stock trading into a surreal, sleazy spectacle. It’s a funhouse mirror image of the financial world. And the host, Lee Gates (Clooney), acts like the ringleader of the sideshow circus we call the stock market. He’s more of a showman than a financial expert, constantly spewing catchphrases and comparing the lines of stock market charts to the voluptuous curves of the women he seduces.
The troubled young man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), straps a bomb vest on Lee, screaming at him for urging viewers to buy stock from Ibis Clear Capital, a corporation he claimed was “safer than your savings account.” Of course, Ibis quickly crashed after that, mysteriously losing $800 million in its shareholders’ money. Kyle is upset because he lost his entire life savings, which he inherited from his deceased mother. And he was hoping the money he invested in Ibis would help support him and his pregnant girlfriend.
Oddly enough, Kyle’s circumstances don’t feel as dire as they should. The film focuses on the bigger picture rather than plumbing the depths of his pain. Rather than fleshing him out and exploring the personal reasons behind his extreme actions, the screenwriters mostly try to make Kyle a mouthpiece for Americans’ anger at “the one percent.” He speaks in broad strokes, ranting about how fat cat CEOs are lying to the common man and how the American economy is crooked. Nothing terribly new or eye-opening. And Kyle ultimately seems to simply want answers for this wrongdoing rather than a way to save his life.
The one man who can pull back the curtain on the corruption angering Kyle is Ibis CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). But he’s hardly capable of mustering the kind of honesty Kyle demands. Worse yet, he’s merely an embodiment of corporate greed rather than a complex, full-fledged character.
Money Monster works for a while on a simple popcorn level as a hostage thriller. Clooney does a good job juggling fear with talk show charm.
Lee is the film’s most powerful spectacle — a cocky entertainer in an uncertain situation, a larger-than-life personality shrunken by the specter of death. Like she did with Mel Gibson in The Beaver, Foster brings out the vulnerable side behind Clooney’s tough-guy persona. And she creates electric chemistry between him and Roberts, who portrays Patty as Lee’s conscience, reigning him in when his ego spins him out of control.
Despite the solid, engaging performances, the characters ultimately feel like archetypes instead of flesh-and-blood people for whom we can ache.
It’s a drama that wants to win your heart but focuses too much on striking your mind, particularly with ideas about how our money controls us. It’s topical and relevant, but the best films are ultimately timeless, affecting us no matter what the socioeconomic climate is outside the theater.
Money Monster wants to be a popcorn movie with a political message. It wants to be important. But films are usually important when they’re not trying to be — when they simply allow their stories to unfold and reveal major human truths slowly and organically. Like the TV show to which the title refers, the film shoves its ideas in your face.
Like its characters, Money Monster doesn’t fully come alive on screen. It tries too hard to make a statement, losing sight of the people amid the politics.