MONEY MONSTER

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MONEY MONSTER  * *

Starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West and Giancarlo Esposito. Screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf. Directed by Jodie Foster.

On paper Money Monster looks like exactly the kind of studio picture I’m always complaining they don’t make anymore. You know, a couple of old-fashioned, super-charismatic grown-up movie stars playing adults with jobs in a film that takes place on the planet Earth. No explosions, no superpowers, and at least the pretense of a political conscience. So it should probably come as no surprise that I enjoyed Money Monster enormously, right up until it turned into one of the stupidest movies ever made.

How did this happen? We all know that director Jodie Foster is a smart cookie, and stars George Clooney and Julia Roberts don’t exactly seem like doofuses. Yet Money Monster ends up dumber than a bag of rocks, with a third act so insultingly silly my eyes were sore from rolling them and I left the theatre angry at everybody involved.

It’s got a promising premise: Clooney stars as an obnoxious, Jim Cramer-styled stock hawker on a cable news network. Roberts is his long-suffering gal Friday fed up with directing his high-rated afternoon show. But wouldn’t ya know that halfway through her last day on the job the studio gets taken hostage by a pistol-packing, bomb-toting 99-percenter (Jack O’Connell) who lost his life savings thanks to one of Clooney’s crummy tips. He’s mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore, demanding an explanation and apologies on live television for all the folks who have been ripped off by Wall Street swindlers.

Foster keeps things humming backstage, making clever use of the studio’s monitors to create screens within screens. We already know from the Ocean’s films that Clooney and Roberts have crackling chemistry, and her no-nonsense mama hen once again pretends not to be charmed by his impish self-amusement. (Roberts is beyond peer at failing to suppress a smile.) This is at least the umpteenth time Clooney’s played a slickster sadly realizing he’s an empty suit, but it’s still a role he plays better than anybody else so I can’t complain. Watching them together is a lot of fun, and made me wish more contemporary films allowed stars of their wattage to shine.

The same can’t be said for Jack O’Connell, a young Irish actor who keeps getting plum roles in prestige Hollywood products even though I’ve seen all this guy’s movies and I honestly couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. (Starting to think I have face-blindness when it comes to all these hot twenty-something British and Australian leading men.) O’Connell’s performance in Money Monster is a spectacular fiasco, dripping with condescension and relying on a goon-ish outer-borough accent from a 1930’s gangster picture. The movie industry is often rightfully accused of being out of touch with working class people, and if anything is clear from watching Money Monster it’s that the folks who made this film just don’t know any. O’Connell made me long for the verisimilitude of those Honeymooners types in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.

There is a slyly funny feminist undercurrent as the Clooney-Roberts relationship is duplicated throughout the cast. Almost every male character is blustery and barely competent with a much smarter and more level-headed woman covering his dumb ass behind the scenes. (O’Connell’s girlfriend, played by Emily Meade, turns this subtext into text with unexpectedly hilarious results.) It’s a nice touch that can presumably be attributed to Foster, but otherwise the politics of the film are pretty gross.

Money Monster tries to pin all of Wall Street’s systemic corruption on one sleazy CEO (Dominic West) who was breaking the law, allowing Clooney and Roberts to absolve themselves of any responsibility for this mess by preposterously bringing him to justice. (There’s even a crew of Icelandic “hacker guys” who pop up to provide deus ex machinas whenever the screenplay writes itself into a corner.) By the time Clooney and O’Connell are marching through lower Manhattan to square off against West with hundreds of cops and snipers in tow you’ll assume the filmmakers must’ve suffered head injuries.

The movie wants to rile up the audience’s anger about the financial crisis and then scapegoat it all onto a single villain who can safely be vanquished by our movie star heroes. That these two noble heroes made enormously successful careers out of aiding and abetting exactly this kind of skullduggery isn’t something Money Monster bothers questioning, and the characters face no comeuppance for their complicity.

Instead, the picture ends with George and Julia blithely chowing down on Chinese food, willfully oblivious to all the dead and bankrupt their story has left in its wake. That’s not just dumb, it’s offensive.

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