Foster’s uneven Monster lacks bite
With Money Monster, the actress Jodie Foster wears her feature film director’s cap for the first time since 2011’s Mel Gibson-helmed The Beaver (she’s done TV work in the interim, including Orange is the New Black and House of Cards), and the result, unfortunately, is nowhere near as good as an episode of either of those shows, and only slightly better than that odd Gibson picture. Here, Foster seems to want to make a cutting-edge indictment of a global financial system that is rampant with corruption and inequality, à la The Big Short, but what she ends up with falls, well, short. Big time.
The film reunites George Clooney and Julia Roberts, who have an obvious natural rapport and palpable chemistry that at least holds the viewer’s interest. Clooney is always worth watching, and here his affable leading man persona is expertly put to use in the role of Lee Gates, the smarmy host of a cheesy TV finance program called Money Monster. Lee is all ego and brash confidence, and perfectly happy to bring glitzy, outlandish antics to his show about an inherently dry subject. Putting up with him is his long-suffering producer, Patty Fenn (Roberts, unfortunately in sulky unsmiling mode), who, as the picture begins, has just about run out of patience with Lee, and is planning to leave the program for a children’s show, unbeknownst to him.
All this high-energy Broadcast News-esque comic drama is interrupted Network-style when a disgruntled investor sneaks into the studio during a live Money Monster taping and holds Lee hostage with a gun and a bomb. Turns out the upset investor, Kyle (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken), took one of Lee’s stock tips to heart and lost his entire savings, a $60,000 inheritance from his mother. Now he wants $800 mil in compensation, but, more importantly, he wants an explanation, and unless he gets both, Lee and the studio are history.
The set-up, then, isn’t the problem; the tension and conflict are inherent in the story. Where the picture starts to fall apart, though, is that within the first two minutes of understanding Kyle’s dilemma, the audience instantly surmises what has happened to his holdings of Ibis Clear Capital, an investment firm that unexpectedly lost all its shareholders’ money due to a “glitch” in its computer algorithms. Or so Ibis’s public relations director Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) maintains, towing the line of her boss, the unavailable-for-comment CEO Walt Camby (an appropriately sleazy Dominic West).
As Lee, Patty, and their crew of production assistants race to uncover the truth behind the dropped Ibis stock price, we end up staring at the screen in disbelief at their naiveté and ineptitude. This is the kind of movie where a character can see a random word on a cell phone, Google it, and instantly make a 100% accurate assumption about what it means, while still not being able to put two and two together until five minutes before the picture’s end. The authenticity of painstaking, methodical journalistic research (hello, Spotlight) is sadly missing here, lost to the need for quick exposition.
The picture was written by Jamie Linden, Alan diFiore, and Jim Kouf, a trio of writers with relatively few big screen credits to their names (their collective output includes screenplays for Operation Dumbo Drop, Dear John, and the television show Grimm), which might also help explain the film’s uneven tone. More writers equal more ideas and styles, and that hodgepodge is felt distinctly within the film. At times, the picture plays like an action thriller; other times, like an arch workplace comedy, or a high-stakes drama tinged with political and financial intrigue. The problem is that none of these concepts are fully fleshed out, and so, instead, the movie often feels like a slapped-together mishmash from a screenwriters’ brainstorming session.
In the end, both Kyle and Lee are sympathetic characters, though, and as their power dynamic shifts several times over, Foster does allow us to empathize with both of them. O’Connell is probably the most compelling actor of the three leads; he brings a sensitive confusion to a character who ultimately has the most to lose. But neither his layered performance nor the wry repartee between Clooney and Roberts are enough to fully recommend this picture, which ends up succeeding only as a showcase for big name stars, and failing as both riveting drama and prescient social commentary.
Money Monster opens today at Bay Area theaters.