Money Monster goes to dramatic lengths to find what it’ll take to make a cable news show do some actual reporting. It starts when a smooth-talking business news host (George Clooney) – think an even more buffoonish Jim Cramer – starts his daily stock tip program. He usually offers up some buzzword advice and hyperbolic recommendations to buy and sell. But not today. An angry young man (Jack O’Connell) sneaks on set with a gun and demands the man behind the anchor’s desk strap on a homemade explosive vest. He wants time on the air to demand answers. He’s furious about Wall Street greed, the rigged system of a casino economy legalizing fraud – he’s definitely a Bernie bro – and despondent over a glitch in a certain stock’s price that wiped out his life’s savings.
The once-cocky host sweats with a gun to his head. The director (Julia Roberts) is trapped in the control room capably keeping crew running like usual. Lights, cameras, mics, and the rest must continue moving without a hitch, the better to keep the dangerous intruder calm while police (led by Giancarlo Esposito) gather outside, debating how to get in without setting off the bomb. With little setup, the screenplay quickly launches into this tense scenario. Writers Jim Kouf (Rush Hour), Alen DiFiore (The Bridge), and Jamie Linden (Dear John) build a convincing cable news environment, a hectic and frivolous place that falls silent when real danger enters the frame. As the man with the gun shouts and threatens violence, the crew scrambles to find him his answers.
An engaging effort of slick competence, Money Monster is the sort of meat-and-potatoes topical movie star thriller that used to be a staple of Hollywood filmmaking. Now, outside Oscar season, it’s mostly found on tiny VOD budgets or on TV, so it’s nice to see this old fashioned form of glossy, well intentioned, reasonably involving drama play out on the big summer screen. Here we have the likes of Clooney and Roberts playing perfectly to type in a plot that’s tautly structured and built on sturdy genre foundations while engaging with some interesting ideas floating around the news these days. It’s about Wall Street corruption and the news media industrial complex, and somehow makes it into the stuff of entertainment without going too obvious or too hypocritical. This is a diverting movie that works out genuine and legitimate class frustrations in the guise of a ticking bomb plot.
Roberts deploys producers and reporters to discover the secrets behind the man’s grievances, while on camera two very different men – poor and out of options, controlling what little he can through intimidation; rich and out of touch trying to talk his way out of the worst situation of his life – come to a cautious understanding. They’re stuck in one place, while in the world beyond the studio people are watching the events unfold with rapt attention. Some are amused, others angered. Still others are getting a little nervous, like a slimy C.E.O. (Dominic West) whose dastardly company IBIS (a fitting name for a bad corporation, like BS, IBS, and ISIS rolled into one acronym) was, through mysterious and sketchy business practices, responsible for the market fluctuation that left the hostage-taker with nothing.
There are clearly delineated good guys and bad guys here, but there are some welcome moments where expectations are upended in small ways. A scene where negotiators bring in the hostage-taker’s tearful girlfriend goes in a surprising direction, and the movie’s not unwilling to see the situation from a variety of angles. Someone seemingly in the wrong can come over to the other side, and vice versa. Directed with a steady hand by Jodie Foster, the events unfold with clarity, cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera finding snappy simple frames as the studio simmers with tension and many outside – techs, journalists, cops, PR people, hackers, bankers, and so on – scramble to figure out how to bring the danger to an end. The plot is involving on a surface level, while the simmering ideas underneath are just broad enough to be crowd pleasing and just specific enough to avoid feeling too condescending.
In the end it succeeds on the strength of its lead trio of performers, who bring a capable sense of weight and believability to their characters actions and decisions. Clooney could play a perfect wealthy dope in his sleep, here bringing unctuous charm covering repressed decency as a market mouthpiece who slowly grows a conscience at gunpoint. Roberts is security and stability under pressure as an expert manager trying to maintain some semblance of order and safety, speaking carefully and soothingly through her boss’s earpiece, helping him see the bigger picture. And O’Connell is a fine vessel of frustrated millennial economic angst, jumpy and tense, wound up with hopeless rage, smart but treading water in a dead end minimum wage job just to make ends meet. This story, with sensationalistic elements and vigorous political points, is too conventional and interested in small humane shadings to be a trashier satire or a sharper indictment. Instead it relaxes into thriller mechanics, looking at its characters with compassion and condemnation while finding its way to a logical conclusion.