Jodie Foster returns to the director's chair for the first time since 2011 (when she directed the oddball dramedy, "The Beaver") with "Money Monster," a hostage thriller that rages against the greed and corruption of corporate America. Contrasting the modern-day subject matter with a retro vibe, the film positions itself as a throwback to the message thrillers of the 1970's, with particular emphasis on Sidney Lumet's classics "Network" and "Dog Day Afternoon."
George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, the Jim Cramer-like host of a cable network financial advice show, who dispenses stock tips amid gimmicky soundbites and softball interviews, all backed by gyrating, hot pants-sporting dancers. Keeping things running smoothly is Lee's capable producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts). Then one day, a disgruntled Queens truck driver, Kyle (Jack O'Connell), raids the studio with a gun and forces the host to strap on a bomb vest. Kyle lost everything after buying into one of Lee's stock tips, investing in a high-frequency trading company that recently lost $800 million due to what the company claims was a computer "glitch." Taking Lee hostage on live television, Kyle orders that the cameras keep rolling as he demands answers.
As the NYPD congregates outside and Lee sweats on camera, Patty works behind the scenes, fielding calls from the police negotiators, and figuring out how to diffuse the situation — and still ordering her cameramen into the position that makes for the best television possible. Patty gets unexpected assistance from the trading company's sympathetic chief communications officer, Diane (Caitriona Balfe), who begins digging around on the inside while the company's slimy CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) is off on a private jet, conveniently unavailable for comment.
With a sardonic streak of black humor, the film resembles "The Big Short," another recent spin on the country's financial crisis. Writers Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf, and Jamie Linden paint the central conflict in broad strokes, but they excel at capturing the world of live television, both in energy and in the technical aspects. They're aided by the graceful camerawork of Matthew Libatique (who also shot Spike Lee's "Inside Man," another of this film's clear influences, and which just happened to feature a great performance from Foster).
"Money Monster" establishes fairly early on that Kyle's a decent guy at heart, and the ostensible tension of the film comes from whether his desperation will cause him to do something he won't be able to come back from. It's a tension that Foster unfortunately doesn't exploit as much as she could (or should), and that's one of the film's biggest problems. As the film gradually fashions Kyle into an underdog hero à la Sonny Wortzik, the threat lessens more and more. Whether that's due to Foster's inexperience with suspense filmmaking or simply because the film's marketing gives away far too much, the result drains the film of the urgency it desperately needs.
Things devolve as the film moves toward an increasingly muddled and preposterous third act, which simplifies things to a ridiculous degree, particularly as Camby's character proves cartoonishly evil, down to an eye-rolling throwaway line that gives further insight into his relationship with Diane.
Clooney, Roberts, and O'Connell are good in roles that never get much of an opportunity to develop beyond types. Clooney is the smug, money-obsessed huckster who grows a conscience — though to the film's credit, it's not so quick to forgive him for his transgressions. In one of the film's best moments, Lee delivers a populist appeal that's straight out of a Capra film, before letting the rug get pulled out from under him. Roberts is the dependable, under-appreciated workaholic in the vein of Holly Hunter's character in 'Broadcast News." In Patty and Diane, the film gives us appreciably strong female characters, who ultimately emerge as the film's ideological voices of reason.
O'Connell's Kyle is the somewhat dimwitted schmo whose aggressive actions get him into a situation where he's in over his head. O'Connell is a talented actor who has yet to truly break out, despite his high-profile role in Angelina Jolie's WWII epic, "Unbroken," as well as stellar performances in indie thrillers "Starred Up" and "'71." Spotty New York accent aside, the actor makes Kyle sympathetic, allowing us to see him as more than just a ranting lunatic.
Like "The Big Short" before it, "Money Monster" seeks to show the human cost of Wall Street and corporate America's unmitigated greed. But in comparing the film to the 70's masterworks it seeks to emulate, its satirical bite proves disappointingly mild.