Monday, May 23, 2016

'Money Monster' review

At this moment, the political climate of the United States is extremely contentious. There is enormous anger on both sides, fueled by a hatred of the system and the unshakable feeling that we're all getting screwed over. It's the reason why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are doing so well in the election season. While the two candidates take very different approaches, the basic message is similar. Trump's rhetoric rallies around a dislike for political correctness and the Republican establishment, a message that has allowed him to become the GOP nominee. Bernie's language is calmer, but he has built his candidacy on the idea that the average American has been destroyed by the financial system and the rabid corruption of Wall Street. Trump's message has had a wider impact that could very well win him the Presidency, but Sanders' Rage Against the 1% platform is deeply felt in our modern culture. Ever since the 2008 crash, there has been a lot of distrust for the people at the forefront of the American financial markets.

This can be reflected in the release of films like The Big Short, and now, Money Monster. Jodie Foster's drama about a Wall Street guru (George Clooney) and the disgruntled investor (Jack O'Connell) who takes him hostage taps into a lot of the fury and rage that is so pervasive in today's world. In between the tense standoffs and the shootouts, there is a lot of topical content at the heart of this movie. Money Monster is very angry at the financial system, and there are some points throughout the movie where it feels like the characters are speaking directly from the perspective of the screenwriters who are certainly mad as hell.

Unfortunately, Money Monster is an incredibly difficult film to pull off. And despite a game effort from a talented group of people, director Jodie Foster's falls just short of the lofty mark. Walking a strange tightrope between absurd comedy and high-stakes drama, Money Monster emerges with a tonal clash of satirical strangeness. In a better film, as the stakes elevate and the consequences pile up, the tension would raise and the craziness would amount to something overwhelmingly terrific. In Foster's film, the story progresses in a way where the craziness rises, but in a way that totally sucks the air out of the tonal intensity. What amounts is a mostly fun thriller filled with a whole lot of unfulfilled potential.

Money Monster takes place mostly in real time, focusing on the life of financial TV guru Lee Gates (George Clooney), which is evidently based on Mad Money host Jim Cramer. The day before the taping of Gates' latest show, the stock for IBIS (a tech firm that Gates was overly fond of) crashed, sending Wall Street into a total panic. Gates had previously called IBIS stock "safer than a savings account," and unfortunately, Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) listened to that advice. The down-on-his-luck delivery guy put a $60K windfall into IBIS, and when it crashed, he lost everything and potentially destroyed his life. Kyle blames Lee Gates, and because of his deep anger against the system, he makes a life-changing decision.

Kyle decides to break into the set of Money Monster (the name of Gates' show) with a gun, hold Lee hostage, and demand answers for what happened in the crash. Lee is strapped with a bomb, further complicating the situation. The hostage crisis gains national attention, while Lee's producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), attempts to keep Lee alive from inside the studio. But despite his initial bewilderment and hesitation, Lee eventually comes around to Kyle's complaints and begins asking questions of his own, pressing IBIS heads to find out what went wrong. The answer lies deep under a web of lies and deception, and the truth may ultimately not be what it seems.

There was a point in the production of Money Monster where the filmmakers sat down and fought over what this movie should be. One side argued that the film needed to be a grim, intense drama, told with edge-of-your-seat ferocity. The other side disagreed, proposing the idea that it needed to be a preposterous, over-the-top financial satire. Those two sides never came to an agreement, instead settling for something in between the two. This is the fundamental problem with Money Monster, and it's ultimately what keeps it from ever completely working. Network and Dog Day Afternoon (the film's clear influences) both had undercurrents of satirical comedy, but those humorous inclinations never dominated the movie. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Money Monster.

If you've ever listened to a conspiracy theory-obsessed friend ramble on about how the government was involved with some tragedy or happened to come across a Twitter account all about crazy occurrences in history, Money Monster sorta creates the same sensation. It goes into some truly ludicrous directions, and its plot is a series of events that could never happen in a fully realistic world. It almost plays like wish fulfillment for conspiracy theorists, as the movie delves into its deep and twisted webs where the financial leaders are actually mustache-twirling villains. In that way, it's a movie for our very angry times. It's crazy, it's strange, and often, it is literally laugh-out-loud funny.

However, mixing these nonsensical plot devices with the nail-biting action setpieces probably wasn't the best move on the part of the filmmakers. We're left with a movie that is just kinda entertaining. It isn't as deep as it wants to be, isn't as sharp as it aspires to be, and not nearly as thrilling as it should be. It ends up just being a light diversion, a pleasantly fun action movie with some old-fashioned star power. This in and of itself is not a disappointment. We need these kinds of movies in the current Hollywood marketplace. Unfortunately, with the talent involved, the virulent, topical subject material, and the flashes of satirical and dramatic brilliance, Money Monster's status as a warmly enjoyable film feels like a letdown.

Foster has flashes of directorial control, highlighted by sequences of gripping intensity. Her skills matched up with the terrific cast is mostly what keeps this movie afloat. George Clooney is in prime form as Lee Gates, the charismatic and lonely stock expert. This is mostly material in Clooney's wheelhouse, but it never manages to feel stale or uninteresting. Julia Roberts isn't working with a whole lot as Patty, a character that rather thinly drawn, and yet, she manages to always convey just the right amount of feverish anxiety. Jack O'Connell has the showiest performance, screaming and shouting his way through the wild ramblings of Kyle Budwell. It alternates between shrill and show-stopping, occasionally finding the happy medium. O'Connell is an actor with a lot of skill and raw power, but I think he's still searching for that great mainstream role that caters to his specific talents.

Money Monster never delivers on the promise of a slam dunk thriller, instead settling for something a little more light and fluffy. Hell, they even play a rap song over the end credits. This definitely isn't Dog Day Afternoon. Coming in with those expectations and witnessing something that aims for a much lower bar is undoubtedly disappointing. But coming in at a compact and quick 98 minutes, Money Monster is fun and efficient, loopy and diverting without ever piercing the cold heart of the financial sector. Clooney, Roberts, and O'Connell make for a periodically terrific trio, and Foster's direction is often razor sharp. I came in hoping for something more precise, focused, and engaging, but in the end, I got a highly entertaining movie without much staying power. Make of that what you will.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B-                                             (6.7/10)

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

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