So many things about “Money Monster” sounded tempting as mainstream grownup entertainment: the timeliness of a financial crisis story merged with a hostage drama; charismatic leads (George Clooney and Julia Roberts) bouncing off each other; and the return of Jodie Foster to the director’s chair. What transpires, though, is a bewilderingly facile and preposterously plotted misfire that offers few pleasures as either a star-driven thriller or a big-screen indictment of the forces that devastated global bank accounts, an issue actively driving this year’s election.
Clooney’s character Lee Gates, the louder-than-life, know-it-all host of the titular financial news show, one marked by macho posturing and flash-and-noise antics, is clearly fashioned after personalities like CNBC’s “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer, who turn pushing investment tips to regular viewers into a kind of business-TV vaudeville. “Money Monster” — its screenplay credited to Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf — imagines a scary comeuppance for its fictional host Gates when a disgruntled viewer named Kyle (Jack O’Connell), having lost his shirt acting on one of Gates’s stock tips, disrupts his live show with a gun, a bomb, and a need for proof it’s all a scam.
Cramer, who notoriously hawked Bear Stearns stock days before it collapsed, endured his own famously televised interrogation of sorts (minus the threat to his life) when he appeared on “The Daily Show” in early 2009, a few months after the financial meltdown, and got shredded by Jon Stewart for “selling snake oil as vitamin tonic.” Regrettably, nothing in “Money Monster” is as gleefully tense or entertaining as that “Daily Show” clip.
At the beginning of “Money Monster,” news of an $800 million loss for one of Gates’s heavily sold bets, a behemoth called Ibis Clear Capital, is rocking the markets. But it appears to be of no consequence to Gates, who swans around with what is obviously his usual rakish workplace banter, and has no qualms prepping softball questions for the scheduled appearance of Ibis CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West, who’d twirl a mustache if he had one).
Gates’s spiky gab with his cherished producer Patty (a booth-confined but solid Roberts) is initially fun to watch, these two pros smoothly dropping hints of their lonely lives — his from soulless self-loathing, hers from workworkwork — and conveying the cynical acceptance that what they do isn’t journalism. (He needs her, though, more than she needs him.)
Their mic-to-earpiece relationship quickly gets a workout, though, when intruder Kyle sneaks in and hijacks the broadcast. As the police negotiation, planned infiltration and live-managed TV crisis swirls around them, star and producer see an opportunity to address a desperate, ordinary man’s grievance, suss out the reason behind Ibis’s stock drop, and smoothly engineer some must-see as-it’s-happening viewing. (Cue the shots of bored coffeehouse patrons suddenly glued to the monitor.)
It’s clear why this material ticks a lot of boxes for a pro-journalism, lefty activist like Clooney, who is well-suited to play a media cad who changes heart. It’s less clear, though, why he signed on to so hackneyed a screenplay, which strives to combine elements of “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon” but instead devolves into a ludicrous race-against-time mystery that’s no mystery, and an infotainment satire without laughs. (At one point, pundits on other channels are shown whimsically covering the life-or-death standoff, which strains credibility as commentary even in this callous age.)
Foster, who last helmed the underrated dysfunctional-family indie “The Badger,” is certainly attentive to big-movie pace as she pings between the studio, the assembling law enforcement horde (headed by Giancarlo Esposito), and goings-on at Ibis as its increasingly suspicious communications director (“Outlander” star Caitriona Balfe) starts helping Gates and Patty by digging into her boss’s motives. But there’s a weightlessness to the busy vibe, as if Foster knew rat-a-tat-tat momentum and an unceasing, blah music score might hide the plot’s increasing ridiculousness. (This is one of those conspiracy unravelings in which everything falls into people’s laps with one phone call.)
Though Clooney and especially Roberts acquit themselves with serviceable star power professionalism, the character of Kyle proves problematic: a hapless schmo made less appealing through O’Connell’s overcooked Noo Yawk accent. The movie uneasily slides between pitying him and laughing at him, never more so than when his pregnant girlfriend (a fantastic Emily Meade) gets air time and shocks everyone by laying into him as an idiot. It’s sort of a great moment — the fed-up female screed against dumb men you never get in movies like this — but it would have landed better in a more thematically assured movie.
Coming on the heels of last year’s vividly funny and informative window into the bank meltdown, “The Big Short,” the missed opportunities with “Money Monster” loom larger. One of the frequently cited explanations in the movie for the Ibis stock collapse is a “glitch” in the “algorithm.” The problem with “Money Monster” is that it’s a formula, too, and one with few dividends.