Monstrous Stew, Right Size Serving

Money Monster wants to be a lot of things. Screenwriters Jim Kouf & Alan DiFore and Jamie Linden have thrown pieces of His Girl Friday, Wall Street, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Meet John Doe into a stew to create a populist-fantasy-black-comedy-thriller. It could have been a gray, unappealing mush. It’s fortunate, though, to have Jodie Foster in the director’s chair. She keeps the movie racing along for its tight 98 minute running time so it’s only afterward that you wonder, “How the heck was that as entertaining as it was?”

It does help to have George Clooney and Julia Roberts as the main characters. Clooney plays Lee Gates, a Jim Cramer-style television investment guru who spices up the show with props, sound effects, and dancing girls. Roberts is Patty Fenn, his long-suffering producer who’s leaving to take a job at another network. In effect, they are Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, shooting their lines of banter at each other early on. The show’s about to begin with the main focus on an investment company headed by Walt Camby (Dominic West) that has lost millions of dollars overnight because of what Camby calls a glitch in the trading algorithm. Camby was to have been the guest on the show, but he’s been delayed on a flight from Switzerland so the company’s Chief Informational Officer, Diane Lester (Caltriona Balfe from “Outlander”), is subbing for him on a remote feed.

Soon after the show begins, Patty notices a deliveryman wandering around backstage. Then the man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken) takes Gates hostage at gunpoint and forces him to put on an explosive vest. Kyle had sunk $60,000 into Camby’s company based on Lee’s recommendation of the investment. Now it’s gone, and he doesn’t buy the story of it being a glitch in the algorithm. Pretty soon, neither does Lee.

The movie is in effect a juggling act as the story flips between Lee in the studio, Patty in the control room, Lester at the company office, and the police who secure and evacuate the building and prepare to take Kyle down. Foster uses the camera so you’re constantly seeing the scene from multiple angles. She also brings in the reactions of people watching the hostage drama play out on television screens across the city. For some it’s compelling while others are jaded and treat it like another episode of reality TV.

Clooney and Roberts have a well-established rapport. Even when she’s a voice in his ear during the show, you feel the connection between them. Brit O’Connell works a bit hard at his Brooklynese, but you do care about Kyle, who stands in for all those who’ve been hurt by Wall Street machinations. (If you want a moral for the story, it’s that greed isn’t good.)

There were two delightful surprises in the cast. I hadn’t seen any episodes of “Outlander” but it’s now on my to-be-watched list, based on Caltriona Balfe’s performance here. She’s one of those actors that the camera embraces – everything going on in her mind communicates on her face effortlessly. Much of the show, though, is stolen by Lenny the cameraman, played by Lenny Venito. Like many in this country, he concentrates on doing his job, but in the end he goes so much past that to become a part of the story.

Money Monster is contrived and has to use several quick leaps to get to its desired conclusion, including a deus ex machina of hackers finding hidden evidence within a matter of minutes. That’s become a hackney cliché that should be eliminated from all writing. The movie also suffers in comparison to The Big Short which laid out a real story of the financial industry’s cupidity with an even darker level of humor – and was one of the best movies of 2015. But it does mix in a few twists on the formula that make it fun. There are worse ways to spend 98 minutes.

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