Wall Street, money in politics, wealth going to the top one-tenth of the 1% – these are all pressing concerns for a lot of people right now, especially in the sweaty, week-old jockstrap that is our 2016 campaign season. With her finger on the pulse of many Americans’ frustrations, director Jodie Foster comes to us with her fourth feature Money Monster, a hostage thriller long on big, preachy messages and short on plausibility.
Money Monster details a day in the life of the Jim Cramer-esque finance pundit Joe Gates (George Clooney), a blustery showoff whose show is interrupted one day by a disgruntled young working-class man named Kyle (Jack O’Connell) with a gun and an explosive vest. Much to the horror of Gates and his director Patti (Julia Roberts), Kyle won’t leave without answers as to why Gates’ advice weeks prior led to the arbitrary loss of his life savings and the impending destruction of his financial well-being. What follows is a strangely silly mix of Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Big Short, where the internal tension of keeping Clooney and crew alive are coupled with their broader investigation into one particular company’s suspicious and unexpected drop in shares (the source of Kyle’s misfortune).
To Foster’s credit, the moment-by-moment drama holds up. Clooney offers his signature, chin-based charisma, reprising his Ocean’s Eleven chemistry with Roberts (herself in the thankless, Steve Jobs-ian role of the fussy egomaniac’s harried right hand). The direction and editing are slick and workmanlike, letting the performers do the work without overplaying the limited setting in which most of the film takes place.
The problem is almost everything else. Even more so than most thrillers of this stripe, the contrivances necessary to move everyone from plot point to plot point defy belief: Kyle breezes past uncaring security personnel, the police demonstrate little to no control over the hostage situation, and Roberts and Clooney become disturbingly committed to finding justice for their captor in record speed. One particularly silly moment involves the police patching through Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend to talk sense into him, only for the situation to turn on its head in the most awkward, irresponsible way possible.
Last year, The Big Short was a progressive’s dream, offering a concise, intricate, and realistic portrayal of the ways America’s uncaring, narcissistic financial system contributes greatly to the country’s staggering wealth inequality with little to no accountability. It’s clear Money Monster is after the same plaudits; the film wears its liberal bonafides proudly enough that The Young Turks patriarch Cenk Uygur makes not one, but two cameos throughout the film.
However, for all its railing about big banks and the corruption on Wall Street, its concerns are strictly surface-level; instead of taking the entire system to task, the film wastes its time on characters making vague pronouncements about how the system is rigged, cynical hints that the public will continue to ignore corruption in finance, and so on. The film’s reveal of an intricate plot involving workers’ strikes in South Africa and intentionally glitchy trading algorithms further undercuts any teeth Money Monster might bare, despite its desperate attempts to turn George Clooney into a sexier Howard Beale. It might feel weirdly cathartic seeing an evil corporate thief humiliated on Vine, but that’s hardly the same as realistically taking on the flaws of capitalism.
In a contentious, dispiriting election season where millions are feeling the Bern, a movie like Money Monster certainly has an audience receptive to its message. But that message can be delivered with subtlety and sophistication, instead of how it’s presented here. Clooney and Roberts are entertaining to watch, and Foster’s direction is absolutely professional and serviceable. Just don’t expect a nuanced and fully-realized cinematic companion to the “down with Wall Street” campaigns of the moment. This is populist wish fulfillment, pure and simple.