In “Money Monster,” a mildly ridiculous thriller with a bafflingly impressive pedigree, a brash financial guru’s live TV show is interrupted by a desperate gun- and bomb-wielding man who followed his stock advice and lost everything. He doesn’t want his money back, though; he just wants answers, man. And he’s threatening to blow the place up if he doesn’t get them. It’s a terrorist act, sure, but it’s also the first time a financial show has been interesting.
This is middlebrow, populist wish fulfillment, of course: Let’s get all those Wall Street fat cats in a room and demand some answers! But despite many opportunities to explore America’s financial systems, its class divisions, and the ever-changing definition of its “pursuit of happiness,” the film — somehow directed by Jodie Foster, inexplicably starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts — stays at surface level, eschewing insight for uninspired hostage-crisis tropes and wan platitudes. (“You believe in money, you don’t believe in people.”) It comes out too hammy to be taken seriously, not outrageous enough to be satirical.
Lee Gates (Clooney), the host of the (fictional) Financial News Network’s “Money Monster” program, is a loose, improvisational grandstander who tends to drive his producer/director, Patty (Roberts), crazy with his off-the-cuff on-the-air remarks. Today he was supposed to interview Walt Camby (Dominic West), the CEO of an investment firm whose trading algorithm went haywire last week, sending the stock crashing and losing $800 million of investors’ money. That includes $60,000 belonging to one Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a Queens-accented deliveryman who barges onto the set and puts a bomb vest on Lee Gates and has another one for Camby. But Camby canceled the interview at the last minute and is currently, suspiciously incommunicado.
As the cameras roll and Lee and Kyle debate the ins and outs of stock trading, Patty and her team in the booth scramble to find answers to placate Kyle, while the police (led by Giancarlo Esposito in a small, thankless role) work on an extraction plan. We learn that Kyle is a hard-working striver, kind of a screw-up, who got that $60,000 from the sale of his mother’s house after she died. We learn that Lee is a cad with three ex-wives, a child he has no contact with, a dinner date every night of the week, and all the money he needs. But who’s really better off, huh? Makes you think.
Or it might, anyway, in a movie that actually wanted to provoke thought. “Money Monster” wants to look like it’s trying to provoke thought without investing the effort. The screenplay, by Jamie Linden (“We Are Marshall”) and “Grimm” writers Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf, is blessedly short and breezily paced, and Foster finds a few moments of tension in the standoff scenario. There’s also Clooney’s charm (muted somewhat by his character’s smugness), Roberts’ movie-star wattage, and O’Connell’s earnestness in the movie’s favor. But these can’t compensate for the story’s shallowness — and, eventually, absurdity. Whatever indictment of Wall Street greed that it might have made is undercut by a plot that unravels to reveal not a rigged system but a guy who cheated. What could have been a universal message becomes specific and, thus, irrelevant. Without Clooney, Roberts, and Foster’s names on it, artificially inflating the value, this stock would have been dumped and forgotten.
C (1 hr., 38 min.; )