Jodie Foster's latest directorial effort is a festival of tonal and thematic confusion. (It requires nearly as much effort to sit through as her last one, the 2011 Mel Gibson-talks-to-the-hand embarrassment, The Beaver) She evidently forgot that the 2008 financial meltdown had already provided film fodder for more than a dozen features — from Charles Ferguson's Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job (2010) and J.C. Chandor's star-studded and suspenseful Margin Call (2011) to last year's Oscar-nominated The Big Short. The director treats the crisis as though it were breaking news yet proceeds to report less insightfully on the story than the slightest of Money Monster's predecessors.
To make matters weirder, Foster apparently couldn't decide whether she wanted to make a scathing indictment of Wall Street greed, a media satire or a race-against-the-clock thriller. In the end, her indecision proves inconsequential, as she fails at all three.
George Clooney is game as Lee Gates, the host of the eponymous financial advice program that's clearly modeled after Jim Cramer's "Mad Money." Cramer, you'll recall, came under scrutiny after hawking the virtues of Bear Stearns stock to viewers just days before the company tanked. In Gates' case, the crash cow is a vaguely sinister multinational called Ibis Clear Capital, which has somehow just lost track of $800 million, and whose cartoonishly sinister CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West), is MIA aboard one of his luxury jets.
Julia Roberts costars as Patty Fenn, the show's producer. When a stranger suddenly wanders onto the set of the broadcast, Gates, Fenn and the three cameramen — never mind the studio's security staff — appear unconcerned. Not a terribly realistic touch. All that changes, though, when the angry young man named Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) pulls out a gun, starts popping off shots and produces an explosive vest for Gates to don. If Kyle takes his thumb off the detonator, the host and half the building, we're informed, will be blown to kingdom come on live TV.
Turns out, Kyle invested in Ibis stock every cent of the $60,000 his dear departed mother left him, based on Gates' rave endorsements. Now he wants ... well, not what you might think. Gates immediately offers to repay the broke father-to-be out of his own deep pockets. An Ibis rep quickly matches the offer. But money won't buy the blue-collar bomber happiness. What he wants is an apology from Ibis' CEO. Again, not a terribly realistic touch.
Roberts makes the most of a role that pretty much confines her to the control room. She whispers helpful hostage-crisis hints into Clooney's earpiece and makes frantic calls to Ibis staff in an effort to track down their boss, hoping to convince him to offer an on-air mea culpa.
It's Foster, however, along with screenwriters Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf, who owe an apology.
The film's unrealistic touches mount. The disorienting shifts in tone have the viewer sympathizing with the heavily armed everyman one minute and laughing at him the next. The film lacks even trace amounts of suspense. Money Monster pays little in the way of entertainment dividends.
Recall the Clooney of Up in the Air (2009), itself a trenchant cinematic response to the financial crisis, or the Clooney who directed, cowrote and starred in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), also largely in a television studio, and you can't help but wonder what persuaded the star to invest his time and talent in a junk bond of a jumble like this.