Lukewarm Takes #14 Money Monster
As part of a low-level campaign of self-sabotage that has served as a through line in my life and career, back when I was a film critic and screener season rolled around, if I had a choice between watching, say, a surefire Best Picture candidate that set the box-office ablaze and was the subject of an intense and important cultural conversation about its merits, or a low-budget, indifferently received Josh Radnor vehicle, I’d take a long hard look at both DVDs before slipping a disc in and saying, “Well, Mr. Radnor, looks like you’re my date for the evening.”
I’m pursuing a similarly random, self-defeating approach with Lukewarm Takes. I have covered so little in the column that the possibilities remain both numerous and exciting. I haven’t covered The Hateful Eight, Nice Guys, Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: Rogue One, Guardians of the Galaxy II, John Wick 2, multiple Star Trek movies (the cool new ones, not the lame old ones with the space aliens), multiple 50 Shades of Black movies, and A Madea Halloween, among many others.
There’s an almost limitless number of movies I can cover for this column, many of them top-notch and likely to get a healthy readership. Yet I am once again skipping daintily over the kind of important, popular movies people are interested in seeing and/or reading about to write about a movie no one is talking about.
So instead of treating myself to something like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, I ended up satiating my vague curiosity regarding the indifferently received Jodie Foster directorial opus Money Monster. The film aspires to a Paddy Chayefsky level of operatic social commentary and dark comedy but honestly isn’t that much better than Rampage: Capital Punishment, a thematically similar cross between Dog Day Afternoon and Network written and directed by Uwe Boll, who is generally considered to be a lesser filmmaker than Jodie Foster.
Foster’s florid melodrama centers on the redemption of Lee Gates, a flashy mega-star of the financial advice world very overtly based on Jim Cramer, the yelling money monkey who rose to fame and infamy as the host of Mad Money. It’s a hammy star turn that calls for a fair amount of scenery chewing and flamboyant over-acting but George Clooney, in a performance of great quantity but negligible quality, overshoots the mark and ends up playing the anti-hero as half Jim Cramer, one quarter James Franco in Spring Breakers and one quarter Mike Myers in The Cat in the Hat.
As a bad, shallow man in need of the kind of life lessons that in movies like these are generally found at the business end of a gun, Clooney dances and yells and shouts and generally makes a nuisance of himself. He’s not exactly averse to going big and theatrical but he’s never been as broad or as hammy or as tedious or boring as he is here. Clooney seems overjoyed to be in an overwrought melodrama where every scene is a big scene and every line is a big line. Everything is cranked up to 11, which proves exhausting rather than exciting.
On air one night in his crazy day-glo Pee-Wee’s Playhouse version of a stock market advice how, Gates is confronted by Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell, a British actor who never seems like anything other than a British actor doing a bad American accent), a gun-toting working-class 24 year old and exemplar of Trumpian underclass white anger who takes the cocky narcissist hostage and threatens to blow him up unless he gets answers as to why he lost sixty thousand dollars on a stock promoted on Money Monster, Lee’s show.
Julia Roberts, Clooney’s co-star in the Ocean’s Eleven motion pictures, co-stars as Lee’s tough, principled directed, who has accepted a job “across the street” with a competing program but hasn’t told Lee yet in the kind of screamingly unnecessary but actor-friendly business the movie is filled with.
Speaking of actor-friendly business, for reasons known only to Foster, one of Clooney’s hot-shot coworkers experiments with a new erectile dysfunction cream that’s about to go on the market, and it works well enough that when we next see him he’s enjoying its effects with an overjoyed young woman. Money Monster takes itself way too seriously, and thinks it’s way more profound than it is, yet it still makes time for boner-based sex comedy slapstick.
Kyle wants answers about how a particularly company stock’s algorithm could have “glitched”, costing them 800 million dollars in the process, and he wants them immediately. The movie then sets about providing him important, surprising answers in a way that halfway suggests that if you’re also flummoxed by the cruelty and randomness, taking a glib personality hostage on air is a good way to break through the whole rigamarole of capitalism and get the answers you’re not only seeking but deserve. Now I’m no computer world “hacker” or “nerd” but I was very impressed that in Money Monster, algorithms are called “algos” which sounds totally authentic and insider and saves characters the time and energy they’d need to finish saying “algorithms”
Kyle is a common man with a soul and a lot of misplaced anger who breaks through Lee’s glib facade of preening amorality to the decent, civic-minded journalist underneath. The movie’s moral arc calls for these antagonists to become unlikely friends as they realize that they have more in common than they originally imagined.
The movie lets Kyle off the hook far too easily so that it can focus its screaming melodrama on its actual villain, a duplicitous corporate weasel played by Dominic West, who was so passable in The Wire and so terrible in seemingly everything else. West stops just short of having his character stroke his (invisible) handlebar mustache sinisterly to convey his pure, dripping evil. Leatherface is a subtle and understated villain compared to the bad guy here.
I like Clooney tremendously as an actor but he’s bad enough in Money Monster to make me genuinely question that affection, and not just because he’s always getting on his Liberal Hollywood Soap Box and acting like he’s better than me just because I’m human garbage and he’s a big movie star. Money Monster is the kind of project Clooney’s many detractors accuse him of continually making, a movie that thinks it’s smart and important and socially conscious and ferociously engaged with the world around us but is really just dumb and pretentious and endlessly self-regarding.
In a move that sadly characterizes this whole misbegotten enterprise, late in the movie a cartoonish bad guy’s public humiliation lights up the world of short-lived micro-video-blogging social media site Vine with parodies, spoofs and homages. Money Monster clearly thought they were capturing the zeitgeist by referencing something they are deluded enough to consider cool and hip and cutting-edge like Vine but by the time the movie came out, I’m pretty sure Vine was either dead or on its last legs.
Let’s just say that if Money Monster took place in the early to mid-1990s, it would be very proud of itself for finding a way to implement POGs into its screenplay. This is an Important Movie about The Way We Live Today from people who seem to have only a passing familiarity with the actual media landscape.
Money Monster is a movie with the bravery to speak truth to power by asking the troubling question, “What’s the deal with the media? Aren’t they doing sensationalism and stuff?” But Money Monster goes beyond that kind of query to sternly also inquire, “And aren’t they obsessed with ratings? Wait, what if the reason they’re doing sensationalism is because of the ratings?”
But it goes deeper still. Money Monster connects the dots to reveal that apparently ratings are linked to money and advertising. So, and I hope your wig is securely fastened so that it is not blown by what I’m about to write: what if TV is doing sensationalism to get ratings and then money?
Money Monster is what The Best Show would refer to as a “lid-blower.” It’s really opened my eyes to the fact that sometimes corporations do things just to make money that aren’t ethical and what about the media, huh? Fake news, am I right? And what about reality television? When you really think about it, isn’t it kind of, I dunno, fake? And what about the people on television in their expensive suits with their fancy jobs. Are they really happy, or are they just playing a role?
When I first saw that George Clooney was going to be producing and starring in a movie called Money Monster I naturally assumed that it would be a terrifying horror movie in which Clooney played a sentient money monster made out of hundred dollar bills who kills poor people for not being greedy enough.
That seemed like an excellent use of Clooney’s talents and another Oscar role for him. It would also reconnect him to that long-ago time before he went “Hollywood” and starred in movies that were actually about something, like Return of the Killer Tomatoes. But nope, it turns out that in Money Monster money is a metaphorical monster, not a literal one. It’s not even a monster in some dude’s pants. It’s just the name of a dumb show.
I’ll always be grateful to Money Monster for exposing harsh truths about how sometimes businessmen are greedy and aren’t honest with the public but I wish there was a way the filmmakers could have transformed these trenchant insights into compelling drama, instead of articulating them about as eloquently and coherently as your proverbial college freshmen trading deep insights about society’s true nature between deep, righteous bong hits.
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