Box Office Democracy: Money Monster

If your internet life is anything like mine you probably saw one too many articles this week on Money Monster and what it meant for the election, or what it meant that George Clooney made this movie and is a Hillary supporter, or why this movie exists when The Big Short already came out. I found it completely exhausting and it wasn’t representative of what this movie actually is. Money Monster isn’t a real piece of analysis about any kind of systemic flaws in our financial system; it’s John Q but with algorithmic trading instead of health care bureaucracy and George Clooney instead of Denzel Washington. It’s a fantasy and an understandable one, but one that feel light on substance and, ultimately, a little garbled.

The big problem Money Monster has is with its casting. George Clooney is a proven commodity as the slick huckster with a heart of gold, and throwing in some Jim Cramer caricature makes it so much better. Julia Roberts is the quintessential put-upon hard-working career woman and she’s firing on all cylinders reunited with Clooney to do a slightly less sexually charged version of their shtick from Ocean’s Eleven. Clooney and Roberts are fantastic but they pull focus from the character the movie should be about, the guy who is so angry with the injustice of the financial system he needs to take hostages, Kyle Bludwell. Kyle is played by English actor Jack O’Connell, who you might know from his turn on the British drama Skins or his medium-sized part in 300: Rise of an Empire, but who you probably don’t remember from anything. He does a good job and is honestly acting his ass off at certain points in this film, but even in those big moments it’s hard not be transfixed by the bigger stars on the screen. It makes Kyle’s rage about the injustices of our system and the lack of accountability seem like the less important problems than the dining habits of a TV host, and that seems antithetical to the movie’s message.

If we ignore the central political issue, and it sort of feels like the film wants us to, there’s perfectly good filmmaking in here. The studio hostage scenes are tense and it especially does a good job focusing on the fear and menace that the gun represents. The mystery elements feel sufficiently twisty and surprising, although my fiancée pointed out in the car home that it all really gets solved by one person asking one question to the right regulatory body and maybe it all would have come out without the events of the film but I can let that go. There are even some good moments of levity, which can be hard to balance with a film that wants to be on the edge of overwrought all the time. It’s nice to see Jodie Foster back directing features and she gets good work out of her actors, it’s just a shame to see the parts add up to less than a coherent whole.

There’s no way anyone in Hollywood sat in their office and said, “we’re going to make a movie about the financial crisis and we’re going to cast George Clooney and Julia Roberts and it’ll get middling reviews and open in third place in mid-May.” That’s just not how anything works. The previews we saw before this movie were prestige films with festival accolades and pre-made awards pitches, and it was like seeing the potential Money Monster was going to fail to live up to. This could have been a powerful statement on any number of topics, but instead was okay with being a good thriller and an offbeat character piece. Money Monster wants to be a big and important movie but it doesn’t get there, it doesn’t have a strong enough point of view or clarity of vision.