Ever since the financial crisis nine years ago, Hollywood has taken glee in skewering America’s greed-fuelled financial institutions. Margin Call, The Wolf Of Wall Street and, most recently, The Big Short have all laser-targeted the smooth-talking suits behind the spreadsheets. Money Monster attempts the same, and though it’s largely toothless as a serious expose of corruption at the heart of Big Money, there’s more than enough going on elsewhere in this deftly-handled thriller-meets-media-satire.
In a performance that can only be described as Peak Clooney, the Nespresso addict plays Lee Grimes – a showboating financial pundit whose eponymous TV spot sees him dress up, dance and gurn for the camera while dishing out suspect financial advice. One victim of a bad Grimes call is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a working class New Yorker who invested everything and lost big when the stock on IBIS Clear Capital tanked overnight, costing its shareholders $800 million. Kyle’s solution: strap a bomb vest on Grimes, put a gun to his head and hold him hostage on live TV in order to get some answers. Naturally the show goes on under the direction of Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), who gives Gates his own advice through an in-ear radio.
Of course, things aren’t that simple. Early on it’s made abundantly clear that there’s more to the computer “glitch” which caused IBIS to collapse than the company’s unreachable CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) is letting on, adding a conspiratorial edge to the thriller mix. Left to deal with the fallout is IBIS’ chief communications officer Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), who starts to smell a rat alongside the Money Monster team – leading them to embark on a spot of investigative journalism despite Fenn’s claims that, “We don’t do gotcha journalism here. We don’t do journalism period”.
The problem with a great deal of high concept thrillers, especially those that unfold in realtime, is they can rarely sustain their momentum after zipping past the initial setup. At a relatively lean 100 minutes, Money Monster never drags its feet or outstays its welcome. Behind the camera Jodie Foster’s had an eclectic career, and though Money Monster is arguably her most conventional film to date, it’s also her most accomplished. Shot by Darren Aronofsky’s regular DoP Matthew Libatique, the film bounces between glossy camerawork and the harsh, unforgiving TV studio lenses. In a similar vein to The Truman Show it occasionally cuts to viewers across the country to provide a visual commentary on events – a device that’s used effectively on a couple of occasions, but is otherwise redundant.
Though it would be a stretch to label Money Monster a nail-biter, it can be tense when it wants to be, with O’Connell’s down on his luck Kyle a ticking timebomb of explosive rage waiting to combust. The film frequently undercuts the tension with a pleasing lightness of touch, however – one memorable moment of grandiose speechifying accompanied by Dominic Lewis’ swelling score is deflated with a simple visual gag that lands a big laugh. Some of the humour is a little peculiar for its own good – Grimes’ producer Ron has a strange subplot about erectile cream – but the delicately balanced tone is one of the film’s biggest strengths.
Clooney is superb as Grimes, a buffoon whose soundboards, knuckle-gnawingly embarrassing hip-hop dance routines and smug screen persona make him hard to sympathise with early on despite Clooney’s indestructible charisma. As the situation gets more serious, the layers are peeled back revealing a slightly more palatable person under the surface. His redemptive arc is nothing you haven’t seen before but it’s neatly done, and Clooney fully commits to both sides of the character. O’Connell holds his own in the middle of Hollywood royalty, but can’t quite match the knockout potential he demonstrated in Starred Up, primarily because the character as written starts at 100 miles an hour and has nowhere to go from there.
Playing out of competition, Money Monster is exactly the type of crowd-pleaser the Cannes film festival needs in its early stages. It doesn’t break new ground, it doesn’t try to, but if you’re looking for a breezy evening’s entertainment with a surprisingly satisfying comic edge, Money Monster is a sound investment.