It’s impossible to watch Money Monster and not be reminded of Dog Day Afternoon. That 1975 masterpiece by Sidney Lumet starring Al Pacino, which told the story of a pair of hapless bank robbers turned into anti-establishment heroes must have been in the back of the minds of those behind Money Monster, which takes many of Dog Day Afternoon’s emotions and updates them for our modern age even while serving up a more exciting and altogether different story. Though Money Monster follows in strong cinematic footsteps, with an excellent cast and solid directing from Jodie Foster, it occasionally struggles to strike a consistent tone and is at times let down by its script, especially in its final act. Still, Money Monster is an energetic film that strikes at emotions shared by many, anchored by its charming and attractive stars and held up by its brisk pace. It may not be as biting, powerful, or moving as it potentially could have been, but it’s still a solid, entertaining experience.
Lee Gates, the host of “Money Monster”, a cable financial show, is exactly the sort of slick snake-oil salesman we’ve come to expect to see on television. He prances around with dancers during his show’s intro, uses sound effects and gimmicks to keep people’s attention, and generally acts like a condescending jerk all as a pretense for offering insight and analysis into the stock market, investments, and economics. His producer, Patty, indulges him, trying to guide him to stay on script from her booth through an earpiece while helping the crew, cameramen, and technicians to roll with whatever might come out of Lee’s mouth or mind. “Money Monster”, like so many shows with which we’re all familiar, treats the serious and important matters of our economy and our financial system as a game, where you can win big if only you follow the right tips. But it’s not a game to everyone, a lesson Lee and Patty will have to learn quickly, because their latest episode of “Money Monster” will be unlike any they’ve had before.
Things start normally enough, with this particular episode set to be dedicated to the collapse of IBIS stock, previously a thing that lost over $800,000,000 the day before. IBIS’s CEO was due to be on to discuss the computer glitch that caused the financial meltdown, but he’s off somewhere on his private jet so IBIS’s communications officer will instead appear on the show via video. But partway through the show an average Joe named Kyle sneaks in, posing as a delivery man, and takes Lee hostage at gunpoint, forcing him to don an explosive vest and demanding answers. Kyle wants answers, specifically about IBIS, and the talking point about a software glitch won’t satisfy his craving for justice. Kyle’s fury won’t be placated, and he’s out to teach the Lee Gates’ of the world, as well as the CEO’s out there, that there are consequences to playing games with the hard-earned money of regular folks. When police and negotiators show up the standoff becomes more tense, with no guarantee that any answer will keep Kyle from blowing Lee, Patty, and the show’s crew sky high. But as Lee starts digging for the truth in order to save his own skin he begins to believe there’s more to the story than just a glitch, and slowly he, his coworkers/fellow hostages, and America watching at home start to root for Kyle and take up his anger as their own. As a potential conspiracy starts to unravel, the question becomes not only “Who is responsible?” but “Is there any way that justice can be served and everyone can get out of this alive?”
Money Monster owes most of its success to the strengths of its cast and the talents of its director. George Clooney is the perfect choice to play a slick, insincere huckster who is happy to be in the spotlight but unaware of the responsibilities that go with that. But as Clooney’s Lee Gates learns that there are consequences for the words he spouts out seemingly without thinking every day on his show, he begins to grow more self-aware, realizing that he might even be in some ways a victim, having been used by companies to shill for their interests. Julia Roberts makes Patty much more worldly than Gates, and she’s the one doing all of the hard work behind the scenes of “Money Monster” while also having to stroke Lee’s ego and anticipate his every move. Patty’s level head comes in handy when things escalate as she tries to juggle Kyle’s emotions, coach Lee through his earpiece to say the right things that might keep him alive, and keep the police at bay so that they don’t make the situation worse. As Kyle, Jack O’Connell steals most of the movie, making Kyle a pitiable character, a relatable criminal/terrorist/hero who society has driven all the way to the edge. Director Jodie Foster knows how to get the most from this trio of actors, but also how to manage the tonal changes in the script. She keeps things tense and moves scenes along quickly, but allows moments of humor or emotion to breathe and connect with the audience, and it’s easy to imagine the mess the film could have become in lesser hands.
Still, Money Monster can be frustrating at times, mostly stemming from issues with its script. The film has trouble at times deciding what sort of movie it wants to be. Is it a satire or black comedy? An intense hostage drama? A political film commenting on America, the economy, the media, or capitalism in general? It flirts with all three, but never really settles on one, and the end result is a little unsatisfying, particularly in its final act. As an audience member I really wanted Money Monster to have something to say, either profound or biting, but the film’s finale is a bit too weak to leave much of a lasting impression. As the truth about IBIS’s $800,000,000 loss comes to the surface, it becomes clear that the financial devastation was a result not of faults or gaps in the financial markets or the inherent injustices in the system, but something far more pedestrian and greedy that lets America, the media, and capitalism in general off the hook in favor of pointing fingers at a few bad apples.
People are angry, and they have every right to be. The targets of that anger have changed in the 40 years since Dog Day Afternoon, but the anger remains. Money Monster, despite being a fun, exciting thriller, could have been so much more if it had been willing to really tap into that anger and have something to say about the situation. Instead it takes the safer road, trying to capitalize on those feelings without offending anyone in particular. The truth is, America’s financial system, infinitely complex, multilayered, and inaccessible to the common man, can be and often is grossly unfair and manipulative, where average guys like Kyle are taken advantage of by people in all areas who rarely if ever pay any consequences for doing so. Money Monster would have been much more satisfying had it ultimately taken Lee Gates to task for his role in perpetuating financial lies in the form of entertainment, or had it brought attention and awareness to the masses of just how rigged the game is. We frequently watch in the film as people in bars and homes around the country watch the hostage situation play out, caught up in Kyle’s cries of injustice, only for them to go back to their lives when it’s all over with nothing really having changed. The truth is, something like Jon Stewart’s brilliant takedown of Jim Cramer (clearly an inspiration for Lee Gates) is infinitely more satisfying and fulfilling than Money Monster. The film tries on occasion to make points about morality vs legality or on ethics in general, but it never even attempts anything of real substance or meaning. It may be an enjoyable ride as a movie, but it could have been so much more.