Money Monster

June 3, 2016
George Clooney in 'Money Monster' (2016)
George Clooney in 'Money Monster' (2016)

At a Q & A last week, after the premiere of Money Monster, director, Jodie Foster spoke about her admiration for the films of Sidney Lumet. It was no revelation as her movie has resounding echoes of two Lumet classics – Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). There’s also a more-than-passing resemblance to Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006), in which Foster appeared as an actor. There are plenty of other references, but you get the general idea.

If one is going to learn from any director, Lumet (1924-2011) is an excellent choice. Foster says she has taken on the veteran filmmaker’s dictum that a story must be character-driven. It makes one suddenly aware of the number of movies in which actors are little more than talking heads mouthing dialogue that mechanically advances the plot. Let’s not mention CGI.

Money Monster allows George Clooney to throw himself into the role of Lee Gates, a brash TV personality who hosts an over-the-top program telling people where to invest their money. Lee accompanies his stock market tips with dance routines, movie clips and sound effects, like a game show. He treats the market as one big casino, where you can get rich or get busted.

By this stage of his career Lee is incorrigible. He strays from the script at will and says whatever he likes. His antics have prompted his long-term producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), to seek a job with another network, but for the moment she is gritting her teeth to get through this week’s program.

This episode will be unlike any other. A disaffected viewer, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), has infiltrated the studio posing as a delivery man. No sooner has the intruder been noticed than he steps in front of the camera and pulls a gun. When Patty tries to close down the broadcast Kyle demands they stay on air, or he’ll shoot Lee. To reinforce his threats he makes Lee put on an explosive vest that can be detonated at a moment’s notice.

Kyle is distressed because he has blown all his money following one of Lee’s hot tips – for a company called Ibis Clear Capital which has lost $800 million in a single day. The official excuse is a computer glitch, but Kyle’s not buying. He wants an explanation or everything will get blown sky-high.

What follows is a long, tense arm wrestle, as Patty relays instructions and information to a receiver in Lee’s ear while he attempts to pacify the erratic gunman. Lee tries being angry, being sympathetic, even baring his soul and confessing his own sins on air. He suggests he is just as big a loser as Kyle, although his thousand dollar suit tends to undermine this gambit. The entire saga is played out on air to a worldwide audience of millions.

It’s not until Lee and his colleagues start tracking down the truth about the Ibis crash that Kyle gets interested. This happens after Ibis communications officer, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), gradually realises the dirty game being played by CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West) – her boss and sometime boyfriend.

Money Monster is a compact, fast-paced movie that never quite manages to become a thriller. Despite uniformly good performances the improbabilities of the plot don’t permit us to get immersed in the action. With apologies to Sidney Lumet, the movie is less character-driven than idea-driven.

Foster explores issues such as the growing irresponsibility of the media in a digital age when the circulation of news and money happens at lightning-fast speed and massive volume. Lee sees himself as just a guy on TV, hardly believing anyone could take his advice seriously. Introducing the Ibis crash he jokes with viewers who got their “asses smacked”.

Lee’s program is a symptom of the rapid transformation of news into infotainment, where the story becomes less important than the packaging. Think of the dangerous divorce from reality revealed in the Sixty Minutes child snatch, when the law was deemed no impediment to a sensational story.

Patty tells Diane the Money Monster program doesn’t do gotcha journalism. “Hell,” she says, “we don’t do journalism, period.”

In Walt we have yet another incarnation of the greedy, sociopathic CEO who would do anything for a profit because “that’s the way business is.” It’s a cliché, but it’s amazing how many business people seem to believe this is an adequate explanation for amoral, evil behaviour.

Finally there is a reflection on the spread of social media and the way it plays with our minds. Instead of activating shared human sympathies it unearths the most selfish and sadistic impulses. When the life-and-death drama is over, everyone goes back to daily life as if they had been watching a TV soap opera. Our attention spans have shrunk, along with our sense of humanity. Everything – finance, murder and mayhem – has become a momentary distraction from the pursuit of pleasure.

These are weighty themes but nothing that hasn’t been raised before in movies such as Margin Call, Truth or The Big Short. It seems that movies about high finance and the media are now as plentiful as war movies were in the 1940s. The new battlefields are to be found on the Internet, with Wall Street leading the way as the supreme menace to civilisation.

Money Monster
Directed by Jodie Foster
Written by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore & Jim Kouf
Starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Lenny Venito, Christopher Denham
USA, rated M, 98 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4th June, 2016.