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Non-Review Review: Money Monster

Money Monster works better as a heightened thriller than as righteous social commentary.

There is a lot to recommend Money Monster, beginning with the basic premise. Lee Gates is the fast-talking abrasive host of a hyper-masculine financial television show, who finds one Friday afternoon broadcast hijacked by a disgruntled investor who followed his advice. Tensions quickly escalate, as Gates finds himself trying to stay alive while also unravelling a thread of conspiracy and deceit that seems to tie the financial markets together. Gates and his assailant find themselves part of an unlikely team-up to blow this corruption wide open.

Money talks. It can also dance.

Money talks.
It can also dance.

Money Monster hinges on the combination of Jodie Foster’s direction and the cast’s charm. George Clooney remains one of the most charismatic performers on the planet, and there is a reason that Julia Roberts was one of the most successful lead actors of the nineties. While Clooney and Roberts add star power to the film, Foster benefits from casting Jack O’Connell as the irate-investor-turned-would-be-suicide-bomber. While performers like Dominic West and Giancarlo Esposito are horribly underused, they do add gravity to the film.

Jodie Foster is smart enough to keep the film moving. Even as a high-concept thriller, Money Monster is absurd. The characters frequently act irrationally. The plot never feels like an organic series of rippling consequences, with the author’s hand consistently visible. It is a movie that hinges on contrivance, with Foster working very hard to prevent the audience from catching their breath long enough to question the logic of what is unfolding on-screen. In some respects then, it has more in common with the world of high finance than it would care to admit.

Taking stock.

Taking stock.

Money Monster very clearly aspires to a particular style of socially conscious seventies cinema. It is Dog Day Afternoon meets Network, to reduce it to the most simplistic algorithmic summary. That is a rather ambitious cocktail, one that generates a lot of expectations and demands on a film. Money Monster is not content to be a pulpy thriller about a hostage crisis streaming live across television and internet, which is a fun and goofy concept for a movie like this. Money Monster very clearly wants to say something important.

To be fair, Money Monster hits on  a whole host of big themes about the realities of the financial markets. The financial industry prides itself on being inaccessible and unparsable to the lay person, hiding relatively simple concepts behind technical jargon. Cynics might argue that this is a desperate bid to avoid oversight and accountability, to protect the monopoly of those who operate the markets and to prevent the average person from either breaking into the market on their own terms or pointing the finger when it goes wrong.

Playing it close to the vest.

Playing it close to the vest.

This is a perfectly valid observation. After all, The Big Short is based entirely around the principle that the core causes of the financial crisis can be explained in clear terms using simple English, but were largely the result of an industry so fixated on concealing the mechanics of its operations that it managed to bedazzle itself. While the particulars of financial law and financial regulation are highly specialised and detailed, the very basics of how markets work can be explained clearly and concisely.

Money Monster is fixated upon the idea of modern financial markets as something akin to an elaborate shell game, a recurring pattern of misdirection and obfuscation. The film lands its best blows early, with Lee Gates explaining the realities of electronic banking while also insisting that the value of the DOW Jones only means anything because people insist that it must mean something. Tellingly, these observations come early in the film, before the thriller starts ramping up.

Gates keeper.

Gates keeper.

The particulars of how financial markets work are not sexy. They are largely dull and boring. Most of the big financial cons are relatively banal in nature, new variations on old standards with the levels of abstraction increased. It is very hard to make those details compelling or engaging, as Money Monster concedes in introducing us to Lee Gates and his fictional television show. In a bid to make high finance interesting, Gates surrounds himself with props and dancers, sound effects and inserts.

Money Monster is largely contemptuous of Gates’ approach to the financial markets. “We don’t do ‘gotcha’ journalism her,” his director complains at one point. “We don’t even really do journalism.” She has already taken a job across the street, so unfulfilled is she with Gates’ dog-and-pony show. At one point, Gates urges a staff member to try some erectile medication so that he can shoehorn it into the broadcast. Gates at one stage concedes that he has “a penis for a brain” and his director refers to him as an “emotionally stunted seven-year-old.”

Lining up the shot.

Lining up the shot.

However, there is something faintly hypocritical in how quickly Money Monster condemns Gates’ sound and fury. Gates talks nonsense in order to make his job look interesting. Money Monster does exactly the same thing. The film opens with news of a “glitch” in algorithmic software that accidentally wipes out eight hundred million dollars. However, nobody involved in the operation of that software can explain how that happened. Kyle is an investor burned by that glitch, and so he determines to hold Gates hostage to discover what exactly happened.

It is not a bad premise of itself, but Money Monster recognises that a thriller like this needs to move lightly and quickly. In order to keep the audience engaged and to keep the narrative turning, the story of the missing eight hundred million dollars needs to be more than just a missing one or zero, more than a wrong mouse-click, more than an inconvenient server crash. As a result, Money Monster keeps escalating its central premise, pulling back layers to reveal a sinister conspiracy that stretches across the globe.

Dead air.

Dead air.

In doing so, Money Monster becomes guilty of the same sensationalised and pandering narrative style that it condemned on Gates’ show. The movie makes the loss “sexy”, building to a showy high-stakes climax that involves facial recognition software and secret meetings on the other side of the planet. There is nothing as mundane as the recent rates-fixing scandal, where corruption took place casually over email. Money Monster takes an interesting and quasi-realistic premise and quickly runs to the kind of conspiracy Mulder and Scully should investigate.

This really undercuts the movie’s attempt at righteous anger and social commentary. The Big Short understood that the kind of large-scale incompetence and mismanagement that takes place in the financial industry is not diminished by the fact that it is relatively mundane. The villains in The Big Short were all the more effective because they were so bland and generic, while Money Monster tries to turn Dominic West’s sleazy CEO into something akin to a comic book supervillian. Given how much weight the film puts on this commentary, this gambit costs it severely.

"Okay! Okay! I'll read from the teleprompter!"

“Okay! Okay! I’ll read from the teleprompter!”

It is a shame, because Money Monster actually works very well as a high-stakes thriller. While the movie’s commentary on media might not be particularly insightful, it is intriguing enough to support the basic premise. What would a streamed hostage situation look like? What if somebody attempted to hijack a live broadcast? Money Monster works best when it plays with those ideas, feeling like a heightened parody. As Gates finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun, suddenly everybody is watching. Suddenly his director is doing her best work in years.

Foster deserves a great deal of credit for making this work. Money Monster relies on contrivance after contrivance. Most notably, it hinges on Gates coming to sympathise with his captor incredibly quickly, even after his captor straps a suicide bomb to his vest. At times, it seems like Gates is more driven by a sense of righteous indignation than self-preservation, but Foster keeps the movie ticking along fast enough that the audience never thinks too hard. Money Monster moves at a fast clip, distracting from plentiful holes in its internal logic.

Money man.

Money man.

It helps that Foster has assembled a pretty convincing triumvirate. George Clooney is one of the best leading men working today, and he manages to pitch Gates at just the right level between sleazy and sincere. In some respects, Clooney’s performance suggests a more grounded descendent of Baird Whitlock from Hail, Caesar! Julia Robberts is good as Patty Fenn, his put-upon director who desperately wants to do real journalism, even if that real journalism occasionally feels a little bit like something from Scooby Doo.

However, it is Jack O’Connell who brings a palpable desperation to the role of Kyle, the young man forced into an impossible situation. Kyle is a very difficult character, in terms of narrative. The script never seems entirely how sympathetic Kyle should be at any given moment, occasionally going overboard to make him palatable to the audience. However, O’Connell finds the right edge to the character, playing a man who might have a legitimate grievance, but is still completely unbalanced.

"The FCC is never going to let me hear the end of this."

“The FCC is never going to let me hear the end of this.”

Money Monster works best when it runs with its live-streaming hostage premise, but it suffers every time the script slows down to talk earnestly about financial injustice in the most sensationalised terms. Money Monster is an enjoyable pulpy b-movie that stumbles every time it tries to be an a-movie.

2 Responses

  1. Can’t wait to see this!

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