“Approaching filmmaking as a political act and trying to reach a large audience by putting political material into popular forms,” Pauline Kael wrote, “the writers and directors have found themselves sacrificing meaning to thrills, or thrills to meaning.” She wrote those words in 1973, but (like so much of her writing) it’s still eerily accurate, and Exhibit A in the 2016 version of that argument is Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, a movie that finds intelligent craft at the service of a frustratingly simple-minded script – a script that actually opens with the warning “It’s about to get complicated,” and then proceeds to dumb itself down to the level of your average CBS prime-time drama.
The central premise is, basically, Jon Stewart’s Jim Cramer feud by way of Dog Day Afternoon. George Clooney is Lee Gates, a Cramer-style host on “FNN,” his show an assortment of buzzers, gimmicks, stock footage, and stock tips – oh, and goofy hip-hop dancing (Clooney looks legitimately embarrassed in those moments, and it’s hard to blame him). A recent must-buy stock has gone sideways, so he’s in damage control mode, sort of; he’s also not a guy who seems bothered by much of anything. That changes when delivery driver Kyle (Jack O’Connell) sneaks onto the set with a couple of boxes and a gun; turns out he’s got a bomb vest, which he straps onto Lee and threatens to detonate unless he gets some answers about that tip, which lost him his life savings.
Oh, and they have to stay on the air, under the guidance of Gates’ show director Patty (Julia Roberts), who’s running down the clock on her employment, of course. Once the images of the host at gunpoint hit the network, you can pretty much guess what follows: cops blocking off the area and sending in snipers, nefarious Wall Street types circling the wagons, crowds in bars and dorms gathering around their TVs to see what happens next.
But Foster is a skilled filmmaker, and she manages to keep much of the picture humming. She’s tuned in to the backstage rhythms of a show like this, an environment that’s fast-paced and fluid, but not frantic. Roberts makes for a credible and shrewd lever-puller, quietly moving her floor cameraman because there’s “a little shadow” on their terrorist, and they may be in the midst of a hostage situation, but she’s still putting on a television show. And Foster works up a reasonable amount of tension in the scenes of police entrance and extraction, keeping the cutting tight, bouncing from the tautness of Dominic Lewis’s score.
And her performers are more than up to the task. Clooney can play this kind of slick, soulless huckster in his sleep, but that doesn’t mean he’s sleepwalking; it’s an energetic performance, and an invested one. His offscreen warmth with Roberts bleeds into their onscreen relationship; you believe they’ve been working together, caring for each other, and tolerating the other’s nonsense for a good long while, since they have. And there’s a fascinating dynamic happening between Clooney and O’Connell – the smooth, traditional movie star and the twitchy, raw young buck – that mirrors the arc of their characters.
Shame about that script, though. It’s credited to three writers: Jamie Linden, whose credits include Dear John and We Are Marshall; Alan DiFore, who’s mostly worked in TV; and Jim Kouf, who penned (hew boy) National Treasure, Rush Hour, Snow Dogs, and that Queen Latifah-Jimmy Fallon Taxi remake. And yes, it’s a script with roughly the intelligence you’d expect from an assemblage of those talents. There are occasional surprises – Kyle’s girlfriend turns up in the midst of the stand-off, not to plead with him tenderly, but to tell him what an idiot he is; a Capra-esque attempt to manipulate the stock on-air takes a thankfully cynical turn – but for the most part, it’s the kind of script that tells you what it’s going to do, does it, and then tells you what it did.
So to underline the degree to which financial journalists coddle and collude, they have Roberts’ Patty assure the bad bank’s PR person, “We don’t do gotcha journalism here, Diane – we don’t do journalism, period.” Subtle! And when the evil CEO finally gets in front of the camera, he insists, “What’s wrong with making a profit?” I see! And for all its creators’ assertions that they’re making a timely response to the financial meltdowns (of, y’know, eight-nine years ago), the comically simplistic mystery at the script’s center – solved by producers calling upon “those hacker” sources from a previous story, who are in turn able to provide perfectly implicating photos and footage on about four second’s notice – is the kind of egregious, criminal meddling that actually could get someone in trouble with the SEC. It’s a remarkably dissatisfying conclusion, shifting focus from the perpetrators of real market manipulations to something resembling a Bond villain.
It’s all a bummer, because Money Monster a movie made by smart people, with serious subjects on their minds, and you can’t help but feel like they’re playing well below their skill level. This is a movie with its heart in the right place, and its brain in the deep freeze.
Money Monster is out Friday.