George Clooney tries to tame his own Money Monster.
When we see George Clooney on the big screen, we are regularly treated to an ultra cool, ultra confident, ultra collected character. A Danny Ocean or Matt Kowalski. Lee Gates, Clooney’s character in Money Monster may initially be of the same mold, but has his world turned upside down when he is attacked on the set of his financial news TV show.
As it becomes clear to him that the attacker, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), is not part of some planned prank but rather truly there to hurt someone, for a moment—just a moment—Gates is utterly terrified and completely without defenses. All too quickly, he recovers and while he is scared for most of the film, that raw bit of terror that we too rarely see in Clooney’s eyes dissipates.
This recovery is emblematic of a tonal problem which the Jodie Foster-directed film faces. A clear critique of entertainment-based news programming shows, like Jim Cramer’s CNBC series Mad Money, Money Monster offers up the tale of one man, Budwell, who foolishly took the advice he heard from Gates on the latter’s TV show (also called Money Monster). The film attempts to mix up the terrifying moments, including Gates being made to wear an explosive-laden vest, with some incredibly funny ones, like Budwell’s girlfriend, Molly (Emily Meade), berating him in the middle of the standoff. Although some of the transitions between funny and deadly serious are handled well, at other times, just as with Gates going from insanely terrified to only moderately scared, they are too fast, ripping the audience out of the unfolding drama.
Money Monster also has issues when it leaves the confines of the TV show and its control room, run by director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts). There is a fantastic sense of urgency to film caused by the live TV show being broadcast.
Through the show and Gates talking to him, we learn that Budwell bought a stock, IBIS Clear Capital, that Gates recommended on the show and when a “glitch” wiped out $800,000,000 of the stock’s value, Budwell lost his entire savings, $60,000. In these moments, Money Monster beautifully brings the audience into the room and makes those watching on the big screen feel as though we, too, are in danger and that we, too, are chasing down a mystery. When the film switches over to the IBIS offices and the search by CCO Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) for her CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West), the urgency and immediacy of Gates’ crisis dissipates.
Equally bad, it is outside the confines of the show’s set that the film telegraphs later reveals. When we hear the police hostage negotiator say that he “knows” Budwell to be, specifically a loner, to the on-site NYPD captain, Powell (Giancarlo Esposito), everyone watching the film knows the negotiator is wrong. When Lester keeps getting told that Camby is unreachable because he’s on a plane, everyone watching knows that something is wrong.
However, when the audience is stuck there, shifting between the control room and the studio floor, Money Monster is brilliant. Watching the folks in the control room scramble to keep Gates on his feet while interviewing Budwell as they do research on the fly and send a producer to various locations in the city is utterly thrilling. Fenn quickly realizes that despite Budwell, the explosives, and the gun, she is still directing/producing a TV show, and takes control of the aspects of it that she can.
The greatness of Money Monster are just these sorts of moments and the questions they elicit. Is Fenn still directing the show because it’s something she can control or is Fenn directing because she knows that the viewership numbers are skyrocketing? There is no question that the latter is a part of it.
Is that cynical? Unquestionably, but Money Monster is a terribly cynical movie.
Money Monster doesn’t ask whether Gates and his show are in the wrong – there is no doubt from the film’s point of view that they are. Budwell goes too far in his search for answers as to how such a glitch could occur, but the film is more on his side than it is the show’s. In fact, Money Monster acts as a critique of not just entertainment shows masquerading as news and the way the stock market operates, but also the way in which our culture blindly accepts these things. Money Monster in no way hides these admonitions but still manages to not feel heavy-handed in delivering them.
The film is also helped by the chemistry between Roberts and Clooney. Even though Fenn is just talking into Gates’ earpiece for much of the time, Foster is able to create a more real relationship between these two characters than in many films that have the leads face-to-face. O’Connell is perfect as Budwell, beautifully channeling a man on the edge.