It’s kind of a shame that Money Monster came out after The Big Short raised the bar for popular criticism of Wall Street dysfunction. A year ago, this could have been a fine little thriller with a hook into the widespread resentment many Americans feel towards the financial sector. But today, for all the skill Jodie Foster shows in directing us through the tension, it feels too tame and conventional to truly resonate.
The movie takes its title from a clone of Jim Cramer’s Mad Money, hosted by the glib-but-empty Lee Gates (George Clooney). He enters the show each day as a rich, middle-aged white guy flanked by two hip-hop dancers, and his advice is peppered with graphics clips and sound effects. In charge of making sure the right cartoon pops up when Lee hits the Big Red Button on his desk is his director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts). The aesthetic has more in common with drive-time “morning zoo”-style radio than with real journalism, and Patty knows it; she’s about to jump ship for a new job at a different network, which of course is right across the street.
Of course, if you get beyond fundamentals like “don’t spend more than you can afford”, shows like this should carry the same disclaimer phone psychic ads do. Anyone using them as the basis of an investment strategy is an idiot, and Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) certainly fits that bill. After losing sixty thousand dollars on a stock Lee claimed was “safer than your savings account”, he sneaks onto the set during a live show, holds Lee at gunpoint, and forces him to don an explosive vest.
Ibis, the company in question, is itself in financial services — I’m wondering if the writers have confused hedge funds for stocks, here — and specializes in high-frequency trading. CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) explains the collapse in the stock’s price as a “glitch in the algo[rithm]”, but he’s skipped out on his interview with Lee. Kyle doesn’t believe a word of it. Ibis CCO Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) bugs out of her remote feed the moment he shows up ranting about her company.
Naturally enough, the script has all the sympathy in the world for Kyle. I feel bad that he got screwed over, too, but it doesn’t stop me from calling out his own responsibility for his situation. Besides losing all his money, he’s bursting into a live TV studio and taking hostages; this is not a man who makes the best choices. And the one person within the story who’s willing to say as much is played for a screeching harpy.
Lee has Clooney’s face, so of course he’s a good guy. Sure, he’s a bit of a cad, but he comes around to Kyle’s side in seeking out what really happened at Ibis. There’s never a real attempt to hold his feet to the fire and make him take any real responsibility for hawking financial snake oil here.
No, the ultimate responsibility in Money Monster‘s mind lies at Ibis, where of course something shady is going on and Walt is behind it. Except unlike the actual financial dodges and regulatory captures that make up corruption on the real Wall Street, his malfeasance is something far more pedestrian. Which is fine and all, but the movie clearly wants to stoke our anger at actual Wall Street. Walt even mocks Kyle, taking the familiar position that his tactics may have been unfair, but that there was nothing illegal about them. Except that in this case there actually is a crime in plain sight, which renders his whole bad-guy-speech absurd.
While failing to hold actual Wall Street practices, financial infotainment sources, or investors themselves responsible, the movie does make one halfhearted indictment that might actually matter: us. As the hostage crisis remains on the air, it becomes a spectacle. People gather in bars and lounges — wherever there’s a television normally providing background noise — and watch it unfold with a perverse sense of fascination, and even glee. There’s little sense of terror, or even concern for Lee’s fate. It’s all a big game, like some sporting contest. I’m pretty sure I caught some guys betting on the outcome.
But not only doesn’t Foster spend enough time on this point, it’s so badly bungled that the movie audience itself has the exact same reaction. Listening to them, you’d think they were watching a madcap stoner comedy, laughing from one threat to the next. Tension builds up, but it releases with a guffaw every time. True, it’s not as bad a misunderstanding as attended Wall Street, but it’s not exactly a sign that the movie can make any of its points.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.