Antiquated "Money Monster" Crashes Early And Often

The summer movie season is upon us, and you know what that means: dinosaurs! Jodie Foster’s “Money Monster” is one: a lumbering, outmoded Brachiosaurus of a movie that evokes a few turn-of-the-century thrillers that should not be evoked. Primarily, 2002 Denzel Washington vehicle “John Q,” a not particularly inventive slice of melodrama that saw its handgun-wielding title character hold up a hospital waiting room in order to secure a heart transplant for his son. Although anchored by a reliably solid performance from its star, it was an overwrought, manipulative plea for healthcare reform that seemed ancient the second it hit theaters.

“Money Monster” takes the same social-minded thriller template but swaps a relatable hostage-taker for a stupid one and Washington’s star power for that of George Clooney and Julia Roberts. It’s a bad trade-off. Neither actor has Washington’s innate chemistry to power through a bad screenplay. Worse yet, some very serious financial issues are distilled into retrograde B-movie nonsense. (By the film’s ill-advised third act, Roberts’ character can be heard yelling about “hacker guys.”)

Clooney headlines as Lee Gates, the buffoonish host of the film’s titular “Mad Money” inspired cable show. When Lee isn’t dancing awkwardly in a top hat, he’s giving loud, frequently bad financial advice at an astounding clip. Clooney is neither a good fit for the role nor game for being a bad fit. He’s just there, mugging his way through act I, then leaping to whatever unnatural, unearned emotion that the screenplay requires of him at any given moment.

Roberts plays the show’s maternal, levelheaded director, Patty, who – unbeknownst to Lee – is planning to leave the show. Naturally, she’s the only smart person in the entire film. But Roberts is misspent, too, playing a shell of a character we’re supposed to buy into just because she’s inhabited by a movie star.

When Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) – a working class sap who took some of Lee’s bad advice and got burned – shows up on set disguised as a deliveryman, things go very bad for these characters very quickly. Lee goes on air, Kyle pulls a gun, and the two enter a protracted hostage negotiation that isn’t much of a negotiation at all. Kyle just wants answers. Patty does her best to shuttle personnel out of the studio, but Kyle is also packing an explosive vest, one that he straps to Lee to ensure that the show remains on the air.

The screenplay (credited to Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf) does that late-90s thing of mistaking small talk for character development and stale pop culture references for jokes. We don’t get to know or care for any of these people and their hokey exchanges about “erection cream” do little to improve the situation. Moreover, there are some staggering characterization issues at hand, with the writers fundamentally misunderstanding their characters.

Kyle Budwell is a terrorist. His situation is unfortunate, but his actions are those of a terrible, dangerous person. The screenplay is aware of this except when it’s not, inexplicably martyring him whenever it needs to get its populist message across: lying is bad, greed is worse, and the American people deserve better. But don’t do what Kyle Budwell does here. Unless you need to make a point. (Dominic West’s performance as Walt Camby, the pic’s token Wall Street villain, is forgettable, at best.)

O’Connell’s performance is a different kind of failure than that of Clooney and Roberts, with the actor following up his underwhelming turn in “Unbroken” with another bland one. (The less said about his Newsies-style Brooklyn accent, the better.) His is a poorly realized character (not his fault) performed with all the gravitas of an actual deliveryman (his fault).

Director Jodie Foster (who does not appear in the film) has been been saddled with a desperately addled script, but this does not explain her unstylish direction or inability to navigate tone. Is this a black comedy? The lame attempts at humor suggest otherwise. Is it a deadly serious screed about the pathology of American gluttony? Its unremarkable visuals and dopey plot machinations hint at something else, something much more senseless: a movie that wouldn’t exist with the involvement of a couple of movie stars. Plug in no-name actors and “Money Monster” would be nigh-on unwatchable.

By the time the film literally climaxes with a shoulder shrug, the writing’s long been on the wall. The movie is by, for, and about people so out of touch with modernity that they’ll be shocked to find that Joel “Batman & Robin” Schumacher made the good version of this movie (“Phone Booth”) fifteen years ago. The inclusion of years-old Twitter video app Vine as cutting-edge technology hammers home just how unhip a movie this is.

Too boneheaded to convincingly wax philosophical and too grim to be any fun, “Money Monster” will please very few who know anything about finance and even fewer who know anything about filmmaking. It’s a gauche, puddle-deep meditation on nothing in particular, sure to make denizens of the future incredulous as to the notion that it was released in 2016. 1996 is more like it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: May 13, 2016
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Jodie Foster
Screenwriters: Jamie Linden, Alan DiFore, Jim Kouf
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Giancarlo Esposito, Caitriona Balfe
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sexuality and brief violence)