By Preston Wilder
It’s easy to scoff at Money Monster. It feels like a TV play, most of it taking place in a single room. Characters talk non-stop, and there’s an obvious moral at the end. Unlike The Big Short – another film about the financial crisis, and money in general – it dumbs down, having people ask “What does that mean?” so complex financial situations can be re-stated in plain English. It also has a movie star playing an amoral, fast-talking hustler, a casting coup that usually makes for phony drama since we all know the hustler must be redeemed and/or grow a backbone eventually – otherwise, why would he be played by a movie star?
I suppose that’s true, and the film is indeed quite phony. It’s one thing for the truth to come out at the end, quite another for Lee Gates (George Clooney) to expose it by doing an impromptu TV show in public, explaining what happened like a televisual Hercule Poirot while his faithful producer Patty (Julia Roberts) cues up videos at a moment’s notice. This wouldn’t happen ‘in real life’, and a hostage drama probably wouldn’t unfold like it does in the movie either. Money Monster is a total confection – but it’s written smoothly (if not very wittily), it keeps various balls in the air with impressive aplomb, it pairs two examples of that vanishing breed, the bona fide movie star, and it comes with enough real-life detail to suggest the filmmakers have a fair idea of what’s going on, even if they’ve chosen to transmute it into Hollywood fakery.
‘What’s going on’ is greed and corruption. “It’s rigged, the whole goddamn thing,” we’re informed – a line that’s a sign of the times, reflecting the angry tenor of public debate in the age of Trump and Brexit. The financial system – the system in general – is rigged, companies making billions off the backs of ordinary people, fobbing them off with corporate-speak when things go wrong (“We believe in complete transparency,” claims Caitriona Balfe as PR person Diane Lester, brushing off an $800 million loss as “an isolated incident” and “what we call ‘a black swan’”). They also employ useful idiots like Gates to peddle their wares, Gates being the vain presenter of a shallow talk-show called Money Monster, less concerned with whether his stock tips are accurate than with flaunting his own charisma and, by extension, libido: “I haven’t eaten dinner alone since the 90s”.
The film is Gates’ arc to becoming a better person, forcing him to drop his defences, admit his inadequacy (he’s a thrice-divorced deadbeat dad with an escort service on speed-dial) and finally look beyond his own narcissism. Clooney’s had a comparable arc in real life, the suspicion of youthful shallowness – ‘Gorgeous George’, teenage athlete, son of a beauty queen and a TV anchorman – having matured to political films in middle age (not to mention his symbolically-perfect marriage to activist Amal Alamuddin), and Money Monster trades heavily on the actor’s charm even as it’s based on systematically making Gates look foolish. He appeals to the audience for help; they ignore him. He tries to diminish the gunman’s problems – by comparing them to his own, i.e. more narcissism – but they turn out to be worse than he imagined. The film may be viewed as a case of two women, director Jodie Foster and Roberts as her onscreen emissary, having fun with men’s arrogance, puncturing the myth of the take-charge hero.
The gunman? Oh yeah, that’s the plot, a young man with a grudge (played by Jack O’Connell from Unbroken) taking over the TV studio. “I might be the one with the gun, but I’m not the real criminal!” he affirms, the kind of only-in-the-movies line that shows why Money Monster can’t be taken entirely seriously (inevitably, there’s also a bit when Lee is told to keep talking in order to “stall him”). The plot stays within the confines of the studio then, unexpectedly, goes to the other extreme, finding (unconvincing) minor characters in Seoul and Reykjavik in a half-baked bid at globalisation. The climax triumphantly gets a CEO to admit that what he did was “wrong” – but by that time fraud has been proven, and fraud is indeed “wrong”. It’s all a bit lame.
Yet it’s also entertaining. Clooney and Roberts are great together (their final moment is especially perfect), seeming to belong to some natural aristocracy of glamorous people who don’t need to show off their glamour. The writers include Jim Kouf, who made his name in the 80s and 90s – and the film feels like it belongs to that earlier age, with functional style and the kind of piled-up, planned-out plotting that’s migrated to TV nowadays. Money Monster is serious enough to be relevant, glossy enough to get away with it. Easy to scoff, easier to enjoy.
DIRECTED BY Jodie Foster
STARRING George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell
US 2016 98 mins