Script holds George Clooney, Julia Roberts hostage in Jodie Foster’s ‘Money Monster’

July 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Forty years after his mad-as-hell masterpiece “Network” (1976), many of Sidney Lumet’s predictions have tragically come true about the danger of increasingly sensationalist “news” anchors in a runaway ratings chase.

Now, it’s time for “Network” to meet Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) for a star-studded hostage flick that’s worth watching for its compelling timeliness more than its over-plotted implausibilities.

Directed by Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster in her fourth feature effort, “Money Monster” follows Lee Gates (George Clooney), the bombastic host of a flashy stock-trading cable TV show produced by Patty (Julia Roberts), who spits personal jokes and professional directions in his ear.

Everything changes when a desperate blue-collar gunman named Kyle (Jack O’Connell) bursts onto the set, holds Gates hostage on live TV and commands Patty to leave the cameras rolling. Kyle feels he was sold a bill of goods by Gates, who told viewers to invest in the “surefire” company IBIS, run by the elusive Walt Camby (Dominic West), whose algorithm glitch just caused the stock to tank.

Now, Kyle is out for justice in a wild-eyed attempt to avenge his fellow shareholders’ losses.

Above all, “Money Monster” reminds us that Clooney and Roberts aren’t stars for nothing. Both are two of the most charismatic talents of the past 25 years, winning fans with “Gravity” (2013) and “Pretty Woman” (1990), while winning Oscars with “Syriana” (2005) and “Erin Brockovich” (2000).

Once again, the duo finds its “Ocean’s Eleven” chemistry, portraying a love-hate relationship like Danny and Tess Ocean as they chirp back and forth between Roberts’ backstage head set and Clooney’s on-set ear piece. Ladies and gents, it’s CNBC’s Jim Cramer vs. Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo! “Mad Money” vs.”Money Monster!” A ratings bonanza! Cue the countdown clock!

With such star power as Clooney and Roberts, it’s fitting that the gunman be played by a lesser known actor like O’Connell, who we vaguely recall as real-life World War II hero Louis Zamperini from Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” (2014). Rather than hold a heavy plank of wood above his head, he now holds his thumb on a button, threatening to detonate a bomb strapped to Clooney’s vest.

Perhaps the bigger breakthrough supporting performance is by Caitriona Balfe, who steals the show as IBIS’ thankless communications director. After minor film roles in “Super 8” (2011) and “Now You See Me” (2013) and a Golden Globe nomination for TV’s “Outlander” (2014-2016), “Money Monster” is the type of high-exposure work that should earn her future roles in major movies.

TV fans will also smile ear-to-ear the second they realize “The Wire” alums Detective McNulty (Dominic West) and Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) are once again sharing the screen. Only here, the roles are flipped, as West plays the slimy antagonist while Bauer plays the hardworking cop.

Just as “Wire” baddie Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) recently shared the screen with “Breaking Bad” villain Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in Disney’s “The Jungle Book” (2016), “Money Monster” similarly cross-pollinates the two shows, casting Esposito as no-nonsense hostage negotiator Captain Powell.

For such a supremely talented actor as Esposito, you’ll be “buggin’ out” like his “Do the Right Thing” character when you realize how little screentime he actually gets in “Money Monster.” If you close your eyes and think of other hostage films, it’s the negotiator who often shines: Forrest Whitaker in “Phone Booth” (2002), Robert Duvall in “John Q” (2002), Denzel Washington in “Inside Man” (2006).

In “Money Monster,” we almost forget Esposito, disappearing from the story for large stretches of time, rather than being used to ramp up the suspense. Sure, the script sends in SWAT-team snipers in a tense moment, but we never quite feel the nail-biting potential of the police plan in parallel action.

Likewise, the script could have done more to beef up O’Connell’s gunman. To pull off its message, the film owes him a hero moment like Al Pacino shouting “Attaca!” in “Dog Day Afternoon.” Instead, the script confines Kyle to the role of wimpy, pathetic coward, when really we’d like to see him espouse some populist truths about Wall Street greed, thus allowing us to develop Stockholm syndrome.

Instead, the movie feels like a case of reverse Stockholm syndrome. Rather than growing to love the film as it progresses, we gradually lose affection as the plot points become increasingly implausible.

There’s no way the cable network would allow the hostage situation to play out on live TV as the film wants us to believe. Sure, there was the O.J. Simpson white Ford Bronco chase — a line of dialogue even references it — but a gun in the newsroom would have immediately forced the show off-air.

The backstage crew would likely devise a system to make the gunman think the cameras were rolling with a phony feed (i.e. the bus camera in “Speed”), allowing the SWAT team to formulate its response.

I know the writers want to keep the attack on live TV for plot reasons, but if so, you gotta show us a boardroom meeting of television executives debating the insane notion: “I want to leave it on the air.” “What?!? You’ve got to be kidding me!” “I know it sounds crazy, but this is ratings gold! Trust me.”

Give it a little Faye Dunaway! Or even Rene Russo in “Nightcrawler” (2014) to justify the journalism morality debate. We see the IBIS suits squirm, but we need to see the TV network brass doing the same. There’s not enough pushback to allow the audience to take that leap and suspend our disbelief.

Further complicating matters are shaky tonal shifts between laugh-out-loud comedy and gun-in-face drama. Screenwriters Jamie Linden (“Dear John,” “We Are Marshall”), Alan DiFiore (TV’s “Grimm”) and Jim Kouf (“Rush Hour,” “National Treasure”) seem unable to decide whether they’re writing a “Big Short” comedy or a “Dog Day Afternoon” thriller — and the awkward compromise makes it neither.

After the 2015 real-life breaking news of a reporter and cameraman murdered on live TV in Roanoke, Virginia, it’s hard to laugh at some of the stuff in “Money Monster.” The wounds are still too fresh. For this, the film’s catalyst feels horrifically plausible, but its lightweight presentation feels papered over.

It’s a shame because many of us are rooting for Foster to succeed. After holding her own as a teen prostitute in “Taxi Driver” (1976), she won a pair of Oscars as a rape victim in “The Accused” (1988) and of course her career role as FBI trainee Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

But the jury is still out on her as a filmmaker. After her debut “Little Man Tate” (1991) and her sophomore effort “Home for the Holidays” (1995), she took a 16-year hiatus from directing before trying to revive Mel Gibson’s career by pairing him with a bizarre hand-puppet in “Beaver” (2011).

In “Money Monster,” she offers some clever directorial touches, namely pointing the camera at the audience for a symbolic moment that asks us the viewers to consider our own role in all this. That’s where the film should’ve shown restraint and cut to black, but it instead settles for an epilogue.

In Wall Street terms, it gets a little greedy. In cinematic terms, it gets a little Hollywood.

The film’s heart is in the right place, tapping into populist skepticism of Wall Street after the 2008 collapse, which is enough to make us all “mad as hell.” This alone makes “Money Monster” worth seeing as a thematically timely and narratively gripping satire of financial greed and media might.

But after such high “Dog Day” benchmarks and such talented folks on screen and in the director’s chair, this one had the potential to be so much better. Maybe we’ve come to expect great suspense from Foster the actress, but Foster the director is still busy mastering the “quid pro quo.”

Keep at it, Jodie. You’re almost there.

2-and-half-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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