In Money Monster, George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the cocksure host of a cable news finance program. The show (called Money Monster) is clearly based on CNBC's Mad Money, with Gates as a more attractive version of that program’s financial guru / sideshow barker Jim Cramer. Julia Roberts plays Gates’ longtime director Patty Fenn, who is eager to move on to something a bit more fulfilling. All hell breaks loose when a disgruntled working stiff named Kyle Budwell sneaks into the studio and takes Gates hostage on live TV. It seems Budwell, played by rising star Jack O'Connell (Tower Block, ’71, Unbroken), invested his entire life savings in a company called IBIS that Gates endorsed, which has since gone bankrupt. For the rest of the film the slick, fast-talking Gates and the plucky, diligent Fenn must work together to keep Budwell from blowing up the station while they simultaneously try to get to the bottom of what really went down at IBIS.
If this all sounds like weak hybrid of Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Margin Call, or an example of Hollywood attempting to be topical at least six years too late, or one of those movies where beautiful movie stars play flawed-yet-lovable millionaires who save despondent working-class simpletons from themselves and from big bad corporate evildoers – it’s all of the above.
Director Jodie Foster keeps things moving along at a brisk, mildly entertaining clip, but nothing ever feels at stake during this ticking-clock thriller. Maybe the film lacks tension because everyone looks so comfortable and pleased with themselves all the time. Money Monster sports a first rate cast—featuring Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, and Dennis Boutsikaris—but they all look like their having a grand time making a movie rather than dealing with a life and death situation. This lighthearted approach might work fine in a picture that isn’t trying to say something relevant about societal anxieties and rage against a “rigged financial system.” The breezy tone would also be perfectly enjoyable in an outright star vehicle simply created to sweep us up in the act of watching our favorite actors sharing screen time. But Clooney and Roberts have never had much chemistry as a cinematic pair. Their big coming together scene in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean's Eleven (2001) was a lukewarm attempt at recreating the genuine heat between Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in that same director’s masterful Out of Sight (1998). In Money Monster, though the two leads are always in communication with each other—Clooney via live TV and Roberts through Fenn’s direct line into Gate’s earpiece—we never get the feeling they’re physically and emotionally connected the way William Hurt and Holly Hunter were in Broadcast News (1987).
The script, by Jamie Linden, Alan Di Fiore, and Jim Kouf, uses our contemporary anger and disillusionment with capitalism as a mere backdrop for a generic thriller. Foster certainly captures the dynamic of the flashy attractive on-screen male and the smart, caring, ultra-competent, female superego working tirelessly behind the scenes, but it’s all at a surface level, and, like the rest of this picture, comes off as shallow. Money Monster provides little insight or exploration into the rich themes it touches on.