“Money Monster” is a kind of confusing movie, though not in the way one would think initially. The plot itself is quite easy to understand and there are no major twists or turns that take any effort to understand; no, in this instance, the confusion comes from the movie’s weird vacillation between broad satirical comedy and dark, edge of your seat thriller. If there could have been a better blending together of these two styles, it could have made for a nice scathing satire, but instead it seems like they just settled for fast paced thriller featuring George Clooney occasionally doing silly dances whilst wearing goofy accessories.
Lee Gates (Clooney) is a TV show host on a cable news network, like a CNBC or FOX Business type, where he talks about the stock market and gives people advice on how to invest their money, all while smacking a big red button that cues up all sorts of dumb videos that emphasize whatever he is yelling at the camera. Sometimes some girls come out and dance with him. Subtlety and nuance are most certainly not the order of the day when it comes to this portrayal of this kind of Mad Money with Jim Cramer style of show. The day after a “glitch” in some algorithm used by an investment firm lost $800 million of their customers’ money, Lee is taken hostage on his live show by a young guy named Kyle (Jack O’Connell), who lost his meager life savings in this company’s crash and only had his money invested in them because Lee suggested it on his show a few weeks prior. So who is to blame for Kyle losing all his money?
Obviously this movie is part of this new wave of financial thrillers, born out of the global economic recession of 2007-2008, a recession still felt hard in many ways around the world almost ten years later. Our culture has reflected this, with more movies featuring corrupt lenders and investors as the “bad guys” and other people figuring out the crash as it happened, some of these movies even won awards, and we even got the sequel to “Wall Street“ that we all knew already we didn’t want, so a movie about a blue collar worker snapping and demanding answers to where his money went is right at home within this genre, as there is never any doubt that the Big Bad Investment Firm had something to do with this and now that we think about it yes it would be nice if we could make these people answer for their mistakes and admit their fraud so we got a little bit of wish fulfillment in here for some of the 99%.
But “Money Monster” does not seem content to merely be a hostage thriller about an ordinary man having a “Falling Down” type of nervous breakdown, it also wants to be a “Nightcrawler” level satire of our media obsessed culture and desire to both produce and consume cutting edge content. This is where the singing and dancing Clooney comes in. Also playing into this part of the movie is the show’s director Patty (Julia Roberts), who immediately takes charge of the situation and manages to evacuate a majority of the studio right away, but leaving a skeleton crew in place to continue producing the show. And while the hostage crisis plays out in front of her, that is just what she does, she produces the show, instructing the cameramen where to go and having clips pulled up and played. But this aspect of the character and her actions don’t really play into any other part of the movie’s story; it is not like they established that they were hurting for ratings or that she was some sort of ratings-obsessed showrunner or even that she was ever capable of crossing any moral or ethical lines at any point to keep her place secure in the media hierarchy.
Instead the show is doing just fine, she’s actually leaving soon to take another job, no one is stressing over anything, so its not like this hostage situation ended up being a blessing in disguise for her that she takes advantage of. It just doesn’t come back around in any meaningful way and that’s because the movie has nothing to say about this. If they wanted to be really daring and satirical with this character, they could have found a way to have her really exploit the situation and make it somehow turn for the worse, putting everyone in more danger because she knows it would result in “great television.” What this movie needed was a Faye Dunaway in “Network” kind of ruthlessness and instead we got America’s Sweetheart whispering in Cloon-dog’s ear sweet nothings to make him relax. Not exactly a grand artistic statement.
That’s the main problem with “Money Monster,” that despite it being a well made thriller, smartly acted and with well constructed sequences here and there that are indeed rather tense (or I would imagine so for anyone who hasn’t seen the trailer that gives away somewhere around 99% of the movie), it doesn’t really seem to have anything to say at all about anything. The movie refers to people in public watching the show live in coffee shops and business waiting rooms and whatnot, but doesn’t actually say anything about this voyeuristic part of our society (you can get that from “Black Mirror” anyway). The whole “corrupt investment firm is corrupt” angle is now neither new or shocking, so simply stating that in 2016 will only get a shrug of the shoulders, as in “yup, tell us something we don’t know.” This movie could have been about our obsession with guns and violence and reality television but instead it isn’t about anything. There was a lot of potential here to make more than just a sturdy Saturday afternoon matinee type of thriller, but yet this is what we have been given, the perfect “there’s nothing else on TV and it is raining so I guess we’ll just watch this with commercial breaks and everything” kind of escapist entertainment. Not bad at all. Just not memorable.