REVIEW: Money Monster

16 05 2016

Money Monster“You don’t have a clue where your money is,” quips George Clooney’s Jim Kramer-esque TV pundit/entertainer Lee Gates at the start of “Money Monster.” He’s not wrong. His sarcasm-laced lecture on the process of making money virtually invisible in the name of faster trades and higher returns provides a simplified primer on the transformations in financial markets – money is, more than ever, just a holder of value that serves as a means to an end.

No wonder, then, that the American justice system has such a hard time prosecuting activity in the financial system. As money becomes even more fleeting, it gets harder to pin down wrongdoing with it. The crimes may be bloodless, but they are far from victimless.

The premise of “Money Monster” springs from an attempt to make that fact known. Jack O’Connell’s Kyle Budwell, a rough-hewn youngster, decides to hold up Gates’ television program to exact revenge on IBIS, a multinational corporation whose algorithmic hiccup depleted his life savings. The idea is interesting, combining residual post-recessional anxiety with a hijacking of the media-industrial complex. But the film’s problems derive from uncertainty over what to do after the logline.

Budwell is, to steal a phrase used to describe Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” a walking contradiction. On the one hand, he possesses the ideological resolve of 2016’s Twitter trolling Bernie Bros, fiercely committed to making a passionate case for justice. The media trial he holds against IBIS is a largely symbolic one; he demands not just the $60,000 he lost but also the entire $800 million that magically disappeared from the company’s coffers.

Yet Budwell is also a hair-brained firebrand who feels like an extra pulled from the background of a Southie-set Ben Affleck film. Once he bursts onto the set, he seems incapable of planning a strategic, intelligent next move. O’Connell’s performance, with its heavily laden accent and manic physicality, makes the character come across as more aloof than enlightened.

Jack O'Connell George Clooney Money Monster

“Money Monster” as a film faces similar dilemmas throughout, constantly faced with choices for director Jodie Foster that can either steer the film in a crowd-pleasing direction or a more provocative, nuanced one. Should the film simply channel the simmering populist outrage in America – or blare it from a microphone? She balances the two pretty well, though a last-second appearance from Robert Reich on a television set is a pretty obvious way to show her hand.

The film mostly takes place in a tense hostage situation on a New York soundstage, with Julia Roberts’ production director Patty Fenn up in a control room to break the tension. But as the scope of the story expands to encompass the wide world involved in the making of the IBIS scandal, a number of puzzle pieces start to come into play. Should Foster and screenwriting team Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden trust their audience to connect the dots of this interconnected system – or just make their relationship obvious?

Who gets off the hook easy and who gets the blame? The media, like Gates’ show that declared IBIS a completely safe investment? The fools like Kyle Budwell, who take people at their word and have some faith in human decency? The corporate bigwigs, who made reckless moves with other people’s money but received tacit permission from investors to do anything necessary to multiply their capital? It’s a tricky balance, and it might be the thing Foster best navigates in “Money Monster.” (Besides, maybe, women speaking up for themselves in the workplace as seen through the struggles of Patty as well as Caitriona Balfe’s IBIS comms director Diane Lester.)

The tension is there in the title – go softer and make more “Money,” or really pull out the teeth to indict the system like a “Monster.” The end result is somewhere in between, mostly pleasing as an adult drama and thriller even in spite of missteps here and there. “Money Monster” has many intelligent takeaways, though the vessel for their delivery hardly matches said smarts. B2halfstars

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