As generic and impersonal as a new credit-card offer, Jodie Foster’s Money Monster is the latest big-studio production to try to cash in on populist outrage over Wall Street abuses and New Gilded Age inequality. There’s a lot of excitable talk about algorithms (or “algos”), the overuse of the term perhaps fitting for a film that seems to have been constructed not by humans but by binary code.
In its real-time hostage-taking scenario and sendup of infotainment, Money Monster weakly nods to the Sidney Lumet mid-’70s touchstones Dog Day Afternoon and Network. Disgruntled blue-collar worker Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) sneaks onto the set of a TV finance program (the title of which is the same as Foster’s movie) hosted by Lee Gates (George Clooney), a Jim Cramer–like clown. There Kyle points a gun at the small-screen huckster, demanding that he strap on an explosive vest. Kyle, a working-class construct whose prole bona fides are signaled by U.K. native O’Connell’s aggressive outer-borough accent, has become unglued after following a tip from Gates’ show to buy stock in Ibis Clear Capital — a company whose mysterious “loss” of $800 million includes Kyle’s $60K life savings. (Is it intentional that the firm’s name is only one letter removed from ISIS? Or that its NYSE symbol, frequently shown on the large flat-screen monitor on Gates’ program, is IBS?)
The CEO of Ibis is airborne and not picking up his phone; back in the studio, Lee’s producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), keeps busy on her headset, calming the financial guru via a hidden earpiece when not barking with ersatz indignation at Ibis’ communications officer (“Because you’re giving him the same bullshit answers!”).
The increasingly unruly plot culminates in a showdown at New York City's Federal Hall, though the actual Financial District settings showcased in the latter part of the film don’t do much to vitalize it. Punchlines arrive two beats too late; the script, written by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf, is larded with redundancies (an exchange between Patty and that same Ibis exec: “He’s deleted all his emails.” “Try texts”); and Foster relies heavily on tedious reaction shots, cutting away to crowds assembled in bars as they watch Lee fighting for his life on TV.
Despite its many faults, The Beaver (2011), Foster’s previous film as director, at least benefited from its outlandish sock-puppet concept and the queasy-making charge of seeing Mel Gibson, then at the height of his offscreen toxicity, in the lead role. Watching the far more adored Clooney and Roberts onscreen generates zero excitement; likewise, Robert Reich, who declares in the final moments, “Wall Street is a casino! They’re gambling with your money,” fails to rouse, his words now empty rhetoric.