Forget Mos Eisley; Wall Street is the most wretched hive of scum and villainy, am I right? Jodie Foster's Money Monster, her first effort behind the camera since 2011's The Beaver, would make for an interesting companion piece alongside The Big Short. Whereas the latter film used comedy and a clever narrative device to inform on the men who thrived during the economic collapse, Foster seeks to hold them accountable and deliver vicarious justice to the masses.
Does Foster manage to succeed? If the goal is to be a crowd-pleasing thriller in which the Wall Street fat cats are the criminals, then the answer is "yes". But the film, penned by a trio of writers that includes Jamie Linden (10 Years) isn't always content to simply be entertaining, and when the film dives into message mode it can be as much fun as a Fox News Business marathon.
George Clooney plays loudmouth TV pundit Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer-esque showman who prances around on set like a clown while delivering stock tips that could cost or earn his viewers millions. Lee is particularly fond of one particular stock and CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West), and pushes them both on his show regularly. But when Camby's company experiences a "glitch" and loses $800M of shareholder money, Lee is taken hostage live on-air by Kyle (Jack O'Connell), a blue color worker who lost everything and wants some answers. Helping to ease tensions and keep Lee from getting shot or blown up is his director, Patty (Julia Roberts), who knows that the host has a tendency to run his mouth. Obviously that wouldn't be good in this situation.
Foster's toughest job is juggling the awkward mix of tones, and she's mostly successful. Sometimes it's hard to tell if we're supposed to take the film seriously or as a joke, because certain aspects have skyrocketing stakes while others are ridiculous. The dangerously buffoonish actions of the cops (led by Giancarlo Esposito in a role he's too good for) are worth a few chuckles....
"Are you saying we should shoot a TV host live on-air?"
Clooney is also disarmingly funny as Lee, whose inflated self-importance causes more trouble and leads to an embarrassing moment when he finds out how America really feels about him. O'Connell, a rising star who was brilliant in a little film called Starred Up, continues to struggle when given less complex material to work with, similar to what he experienced with Angelina Jolie's Unbroken. The screenplay doesn't allow for Kyle to be anything more than a one-note character, and that one-note isn't as a rallying figure for the people, which is what the film really needs. This isn't Dog Day Afternoon as much as it may want to be. Roberts shares her best moments with Clooney, unsurprisingly, even though they are almost never on screen together.
As the cops line up snipers to take Kyle out, and Lee cracks one joke after another, the film's credibility is stretched to the limit. There's awkwardness to its attempts to explain the complicated economic plot, hitting audiences with jargon they won't understand and likely won't care about. The film is better when left in the hands of its stars and the interactions between Lee, the seasoned showman, and Kyle who is overwhelmed by the media circus he's caused. There's a fatherly dynamic that emerges which goes a long way in convincing us to root for them to bring the entire system down. Whatever Money Monster has to say about our corrupt finance system is mostly lost to genre conventions, but the cast and Foster's direction make it a film worth investing a little time in.
Rating: 3 out of 5