The 2008 financial crisis that triggered the Great Recession will be remembered as the moment capitalism lost the mantle of inevitability that had kept the philosophy beyond questioning since the end of the Cold War. The financial crisis meant millions of people lost their jobs, their homes, and their dignity, and very few people really understood why. The promise of the meritocracy was that if you got a good education and worked hard, you would be rewarded with, if not always material gain commensurate with your abilities, at least stability and freedom from want. In the financial crisis, normal people who worked hard and followed the rules got punished because bankers who reward themselves hundreds of millions of dollars each year for their stewardship of the sacred markets failed to appease the dark gods of capital. I'm sure there are many wonks out there who have very good explanations for what happened, but from the ground level, it was as invisible and mysterious as black magic.
Even now, two Obama terms later, the question "Why did that have to happen?" still lingers in the American consciousness. It's behind both the rise of Bernie Sanders and, perversely, Donald Trump, and it's the question on the mind of Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) as he sneaks into the studios of the Financial News Network with a pair of suicide bomb vests and an automatic pistol. Neither one of the vests are for him. They're intended for the host of the FNN show Money Monster, Lee Gates (George Clooney) and the owner of Ibis Global Capital, Walt Camby (Dominic West), who is the scheduled guest on today's show. Kyle lost all of his money on a "safe" investment in Ibis recommended by Gates, and now he wants to know why.
Gates is a flamboyant cable host in the mold of CNBC's Jim Cramer. He opens every show by dancing his way into the studio with a couple of fly girls, before dispensing the latest in financial news and daily segments like "Stock Pick of the Millennium." Gates is the kind of guy who sets a producer named Ron (Christopher Denham) off to get a tip on the FDA approval of an erectile disfunction cream, then orders Ron to try it out to see if he should recommend it on the air.
And that's the kind of movie Money Monster is: boner cream jokes are mixed in with serious and complex economic subject matter. There's an absurdist comedy lurking deep inside Jodie Foster's would-be hostage thriller, giving it the same kind of schizophrenic tone as the classic film it was clearly inspired by: Network. Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 masterpiece walks the line between office romance and black-as-coal satire, but it's the latter parts that will always live in cinematic history because they quickly came true. If anything, Money Monster is better at balancing its two competing halves, largely because of the charisma of Clooney and Julia Roberts, who plays Patty, Gates' long-suffering producer who talks him through the hostage situation via in-ear monitor. Foster is clearly an actor's director, as everyone gives lively performances. Roberts is tighter and more engaged than in any film in recent memory. O'Connell is sympathetic and a little dim, and Clooney walks his buffoonish anchor through the stages of fear into a heightened self-awareness and eventually a kind of heroism.
Foster and company seem to delight in putting up a cliche solution to the intractable problem of a live TV hostage situation and then shooting them down. As it wears on, it veers too far into allegory and away from the credible, but it's still a worthy and surprising ride, and at a taut 98 minutes, it never outstays its welcome.