Money Monster, Jodie Foster’s new thriller starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, is an old-fashioned Hollywood revenge fantasy. Remember that Grapes of Wrath quote (or at least one of them) your high school English teacher loved so much: “But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.” Money Monster is a movie-length answer to that economic conundrum.
In Steinbeck’s tale, that quote comes from a desperate, Dust Bowl-era farmer as he threatens to shoot the driver of a tractor which aims to knock over his house and level his land as part of a bank foreclosure. The farmer’s threat means nothing, though. Shoot one tractor driver, the bank will just hire another. Shoot the local banker, and there will be another ready to replace him. Head out East to shoot the head banker, and, well, by that point how the heck have you not been arrested for murder yet? Even in that situation, though, there’d be a new guy in charge in no time, no different than the last. The situation was simply not reducible to a cathartic good guy vs. bad guy confrontation. Instead, it was the little guy vs. the system, as personified by the banks, and the little guy lost every time.
Money Monster attempts to give the little guy an actual evil villain to defeat. Whereas The Big Short ended with a stunning statement that virtually no one responsible for the recent, devastating economic collapse went to prison for their actions Money Monster offers a more simplistic variation on the same theme: let’s just point a gun at these assholes and make them apologize! It’s like a more violent version of Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) meets Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon), and it’s deeply satisfying.
George Clooney is
Jim Cramer Lee Gates, the host of Mad Money Money Monster, an over-the-top, financial advice infotainment show where stock tips come only after the host, flanked by gorgeous women, shakes his hips like a middle-aged jackass. Julia Roberts is Patty Fenn, Lee’s longtime producer and the obviously patient woman behind the great successful man. Lee never eats alone whereas Patty does so almost exclusively, at least since her divorce from a referenced, but never-seen ex-husband. Their partnership is nearing its end, although Lee may not be aware of that, and they might just go out with a big bang. Literally.
Early on during a live broadcast of the latest Money Monster episode, a mysterious man (Kyle, played by Jack O’Connell) pops up on set, pulls out a gun and forces Lee to put on a bomb vest.
By that point in the program, Lee had already covered the news that an investment fund he once highly recommended had lost millions due to a computer glitch, an explanation he accepted without question. However, Kyle lost everything he had (a $60K inheritance) due to that computer glitch, and he never would have invested his money there in the first place if not for Lee’s unceasing enthusiasm for the company. Now he wants answers, first from Lee and then from the investment fund’s CEO, the dashing, but unapologetically amoral Walt Campy (played by Dominic West), because this “computer glitch” explanation sounds like total bullshit.
Kyle is more or less the Steinbeck farmer pointing his gun at two representatives of the system, Lee standing in for a mass media which has abdicated its journalistic responsibilities and Walt for an unchecked, corrupt economy. Except, as VOX argued, this movie isn’t really about Kyle. He is but a plot device used to deliver blunt social commentary while also advancing the arcs for the two leads (i.e., Lee needs to become a better person, Patty needs a reason to stay). As such, Money Monster might place the emphasis on the wrong syllable in terms of who’s the real victim of this story, but George Clooney and Julia Roberts are the stars. Is it so surprising that the movie is ultimately about them?
Julia Roberts is better than she has been in years, and Clooney charms his way through the same kind of reformed-scoundrel role he’s played many times before. Jack O’Connell at least makes Kyle’s clear desperation palpable.
The villain of the piece, Walt, barely even registers since he’s MIA for most of the movie, leaving his company’s sympathetic PR lady (Outlander‘s Caitriona Balfe) scrambling and genuinely in the dark about any illegal activities going on around her. When Walt does show up, you instantly peg him as a Hollywood villain, and flash to a time when characters like this would be soundly punched in the face by the Bruce Willis-like heroes of the world at the end of action movies (The Last Boy Scout comes to mind). That always felt really good, right? Give us something to cheer about as we walk out of the theater. Wall Street collectively deserves that kind of old-fashioned rah-rah punch to the face right about now, and that’s what Money Monster delivers.
However, Jodie Foster works very hard to keep you from thinking of the story in those kind of simplistic terms. Playing out largely in real time, Money Monster is immediately engaging and often edge-of-your-seat thrilling. As Vox argued:
“Director Jodie Foster and cinematographer Matthew Libatique find new ways to shoot the claustrophobic confines of a TV set, using the monitors present on the soundstage as a way to reveal parts of said soundstage we normally wouldn’t be able to see. Even the script is propulsive. As written by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf (from a story by DiFiore and Kouf), Money Monster uses its 98 minutes of running time fairly well. There isn’t a spare moment, a wasted detail. Everything comes together in the end, to create a picture of Wall Street greed run amok.”
Moreover, [spoiler alert] while the bulk of the film aims to be a more gratifying experience than The Big Short it actually goes out on a similar, surprising down note. It’s as if the initial thought behind the script (“Wouldn’t it be great if we could make these people pay?”) was followed by a more cynical conclusion (“Yeah, but nothing would really change because we’d reduce the entire experience to social media .gifs and move on with our constantly-distracted lives”).
THE BOTTOM LINE
At times of economic crisis, it’s never as simple as “Who do I shoot?” Money Monster, however, posits a fantasy scenario where the system is briefly answerable to those it wronged. It’s overly simplistic about it in the way an old Hollywood movie would be, and the two stars receive more attention than true victim of the story. However, it’s also a deeply satisfying fantasy to indulge, and in Jodie Foster’s hands it is skillfully made and compulsively watchable.
Want to see Money Monster without paying for it? Well, stop thinking that. This movie is worth paying to see. However, if you just can’t find the time then go ahead and watch this trailer:
There. You’ve pretty much seen Money Monster now.
56% – “Money Monster’s strong cast and solidly written story ride a timely wave of socioeconomic anger that’s powerful enough to overcome an occasionally muddled approach to its worthy themes.”