Saturday, May 14, 2016

In Theaters: MONEY MONSTER (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Jodie Foster. Written by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf. Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O'Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Lenny Venito, Christopher Denham, Chris Bauer, Emily Meade, Dennis Boutsikaris, John Ventimiglia, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo, Carsey Walker Jr, Grant Rosenmeyer, Olivia Luccardi. (R, 98 mins)

The kind of slick, hot-button star vehicle that was a weekly thing back in the 1990s, the George Clooney-Julia Roberts-headlined MONEY MONSTER probably could've been released 20 years ago with, say, Michael Douglas and uh, I guess Julia Roberts, and not been much different. While obviously not in the same league, it's a throwback "New York City" movie in the vein of DOG DAY AFTERNOON, but probably owes more to (and comes off better than) Costa-Gavras' forgotten 1997 flop MAD CITY, where an improbably cast Dustin Hoffman was an ambitious TV news reporter in a hostage situation instigated by an unemployed security guard played by a set of sideburns attached to John Travolta. MONEY MONSTER opens with disgruntled package service delivery driver Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) crashing the live broadcast of the cable financial news show MONEY MONSTER, hosted by the smugly arrogant and almost buffoonish Lee Gates (Clooney). Suggesting a more roguishly handsome MAD MONEY host Jim Cramer combined with the grating, "look at me!" showmanship of Jimmy Fallon, Gates is the kind of "news-as-entertainment" jagoff who has softball interviews with money experts, mockingly dons gold chains and has choreographed routines with backing dancers, and has his snarky one-liners punctuated with cheesy horror movie clips and zany sound effects straight out of the "wacky radio morning zoo" playbook. There's a lot to suggest that the cocky, strutting Gates is regarded as a clown by Wall Street: as the film opens, a financial guru and "friend of the show" cancels their dinner plans for the seventh time and blows him off on the phone, and Gates' long-suffering director Patty Fenn (Roberts), who tells one guest "We don't do gotcha journalism here...hell, we don't even do journalism here," has accepted a job with another show and has yet to tell her boss she's leaving.

All of that gets put on the backburner when Budwell manages to get through lax security under the auspices of a package delivery. Pulling a gun on Gates on live TV and forcing him to strap on a vest bomb, Budwell wants to know why IBIS Global Capital's stock lost $800 million the day before. IBIS communications director Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) is making the talk show rounds saying it was a "computer glitch" but that's only because CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) is gallivanting around the world on his private jet and has been MIA for several days. He was scheduled to be on MONEY MONSTER that day, which is why Budwell brought two vests. Budwell invested his entire savings--$60,000 in insurance money he received when his mother died--in an investment that Gates and frequent guest Camby endlessly crowed was a sure thing, and he wants answers, not just for himself but for all the other investors who were victimized by a rigged system (or dumb enough to throw everything into one basket). Budwell doesn't believe that $800 million can just vanish because of a computer glitch. Of course, he's right, and Patty, whose long-dormant inner journalist is reawakened as she tries to keep Gates focused by talking to him through his hidden earpiece, directs MONEY MONSTER staffers to do some actual investigative work and look into the coincidental timing of nearly $1 billion vanishing while Camby's been off the grid and impossible to find for nearly a week.

Directed by Jodie Foster and co-written by veteran journeyman Jim Kouf (STAKEOUT, RUSH HOUR, NATIONAL TREASURE, and back in his younger, dues-paying days, THE BOOGENS and UP THE CREEK), MONEY MONSTER is more concerned with being a commercial hostage thriller than taking a serious look at stock market fraud and income inequality issues. That's not to say it doesn't make some bitter, satirical points here and there, whether it's taking aim at the vacuous nature of most cable news shows (of course, real-life news personalities like the increasingly hapless Wolf Blitzer and the increasingly loud Cenk Uygar have cameos as themselves), and the fickle, short attention span of the viewing public. One of the big mistakes MONEY MONSTER makes is in its closing minutes, tacking on a coda to give the audience one more scene with Clooney and Roberts when a perfect, hard-hitting indictment of an ending would've been the shot of the foosball game resuming in the coffee shop (no spoilers, but you'll know it when you see it).

MONEY MONSTER has some tricks up its sleeve in that nearly every time you start rolling your eyes at some hackneyed plot device or think the movie is careening off the rails with an improbable, Hollywood plot convenience, it pulls the rug out from under the audience--and its characters--and essentially confirms your feelings. Just when you think Budwell is an impossibly dumb, useless lug (British O'Connell is really chewing on that "working-class Queens schlub" accent) who's gathering the sympathy of captivated TV viewers, the movie introduces his pregnant girlfriend--played by Emily Meade in the kind of incredible, one-scene turn that got Beatrice Straight a Supporting Actress Oscar for NETWORK--to mercilessly lay into him about just how impossibly dumb and useless he is. Meade's is the best scene in the movie, with the actress practically stealing the whole show in about two minutes of screen time. It's destined to be a YouTube favorite, along with Clooney's ridiculous dancing. O'Connell (UNBROKEN) overdoes it a little too much at times, with his Budwell weighed down by a massive blue-collar chip on his shoulder about how "you tink I'm fukkin' stoopid?" and "you's rich fucks wit ya fancy edgee-cayshuns!" Clooney and Roberts are, as usual, a solid, almost comfort-food team even though they don't share the screen very much (one question: is Clooney wearing eyeliner in the climax at Freedom Hall? His eyes are all puffy and he looks completely different, like that sequence was a reshoot or maybe he was sick that day), and the supporting cast is filled out with numerous familiar, reliable character actors (Giancarlo Esposito, Lenny Venito, Christopher Denham, Chris Bauer, John Ventimiglia, and Dennis Boutsikaris, cast radically against type as the kind of sneering prick who would've been played by the late Ron Silver two decades ago). MONEY MONSTER isn't high art and it isn't very deep or analytical about Wall Street aside from obvious points that too much of the money is controlled by too few people, but it's an entertaining, straightforward movie for grown-up audiences, so enjoy this kind of thing in a theater while you still can.

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