The one concession Money Monster makes to the idea that men are anything other than a waste of oxygen is the casting of George Clooney as Lee Gates. Lee Gates is a complete asshole, but George Clooney is simply incapable of playing an irredeemable asshole, because, George Clooney. He’s our generation’s Cary Grant; cast him as a villain if you want, but the audience will just see him as a hero anyhow. He does his best to be a jerk, but he’s just so loveable.
Meanwhile, the brains of the operation is a tag team between Caitriona Balfe and Julia Roberts. Balfe is the apparently tricky but actually upright PR flack for the demon finance company at the heart of the plot, and Roberts is Clooney’s longsuffering producer. Balfe starts out looking like the role director Jodie Foster played in her last bank robbery movie, Inside Man, but where Foster gave us a steely operator who’d never seen a bus she couldn’t throw a friend under, Balfe’s an adorably Irish marshmallow. Yup, Jodie Foster directs a movie where the heavy lifting is being done by a woman. Bechdel tests being passed all over the place. And the world hasn’t come to an end, because these women aren’t busting ghosts. Or box office records.
Mind you, Balfe’s character doesn’t really add up when I think about it. The rot at the heart of her company gets right by her until the very last minute, despite the fact that she’s a) in charge of explaining what it’s doing and b) banging the guy at the heart of the rot. She’s smart, but not when realistically she ought to be smart. And how can the communications chief for a finance company know so comically little about high frequency trading? If you’re feeling mean, it’s because she was b) banging the boss. If you’re feeling a little less mean, it’s because someone has to explain it to the audience, and her character pulled the illogical short straw, even though they had George Clooney playing a guy whose actual job was dumbing that stuff down for the audience.
You know what? This is the kind of stuff which bothers most people after the fact. What matters is whether the movie works in the moment, and Money Monster mostly does. Julia Roberts takes a cliché and makes a plausible enough person out of it, Balfe is charming enough to get us past all those quibbles of mine, and George is, well, George. And there’s lots of solid work being done round the edges by people who could do a lot more if you let them. Jack O’Connell’s gives us a dopey hostage taker who’s just smart enough to know he’s doomed and just dumb enough to do it anyhow. It could have been one bum note, but he’s just the right kind of pathetic. Dominic West and Giancarolo Esposito aren’t given anything like as much to do as they should have been, but it’s good to see them getting work.
And there are moments of cleverness; at one point George tries to solve the problem by getting everyone to buy the bad company’s worthless stock. Wonderfully, everyone dumps it instead and his whole “we’re all in this together!” speech falls flat on its face. I liked that; I’ve seen movies where that would have worked and we’d all have been expected to cheer good old American knowhow.
But as a critique of capitalism, it’s pretty broken. High Frequency Trading, stock pumping and late stage capitalism are all aspects of a problem that needs a harsh kicking; Money Monster instead blames the wipe-out on shady dealing which even the people in charge can agree is wrong. The CEO embezzled a boat load of money, manipulated a strike in a South African mine to drop the price of the mining company, and then figured that when the stock bounced back up, he could grab the profits and cover up the embezzlement, while making it look like his investment company has the magic touch. That’s just criminal, even under the existing rules. Catching the system doing that in a movie just lets the rest of the system off the hook. It’s about as useful a critique of capitalism as Trading Places, just with suicide belts and gunfire. And yet George and Jodie probably think they were sticking it to the man.
Nah. You’re just playing, where the system will let you play. The status quo rolls on.