Money Monster (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A hostage situation on broadcast

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“Money Monster” tries a lot within its limited space and time. First, it tries to be a taut thriller revolving around an urgent circumstance which happens to be watched by millions of TV viewers second by second, and this premise works to some degrees during its first 30 minutes at least. Second, it attempts to handle relevant social issues associated with financial business, but it lacks enough edgy or bite for that, and it does not help that its weak plot is riddled with contrivances which demand too much of our suspension of belief around its mandatory climatic third act.

Lee Gates (George Clooney) is a financial expert who is the host of TV show ‘Money Monster’, and the opening scene shows him and his crew preparing for broadcasting the latest edition of his show. Although the stock of a big financial company he endorsed a month ago was suddenly plummeted yesterday due to some baffling glitch in its trading algorithm and caused the loss of no less than $800 million, Gates is ready to move away from his big misjudgment which surely depresses a lot of his viewers, and he is fully prepared to sell them another set of financial tips packaged with gaudy sensationalism.

However, this day turns out to be far more challenging than he thought. In the middle of the broadcast, a delivery guy comes into the studio without particularly noticed by anyone, and he soon takes Gates as his hostage right in front of the camera. Besides the gun he is willing to use at any point, this guy also forces Gates wear a jacket attached with bombs, and Gates and others in the studio including Gates’ producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) become more nervous as they are told that the bombs can be detonated if they are not careful. Outside the studio building located not so far from Wall Street, a police team led by Captain Marcus Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) quickly arrives, and he and his men begin to search for any possible way to handle this tricky hostage situation without any serious collateral damage.

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The guy in the middle of the situation is a young man named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), who is pretty frank about his motivation right from when he wields his gun in front of Gates and others. Because of the sudden stock crash of IBIS Clear Capital, he lost all of his inherited money which could have changed his meager life if he had not followed Gates’ tip, and he is determined to get any apologetic words from Gates – or Walter Camby (Dominic West), the CEO of IBIS Clear Capital who was supposed to appear on the show for explanation.

While Gates tries to keep the situation stable at least for a while along with his reliable producer, they come to have reasonable suspicions on IBIS Clear Capital. Camby turns out to be somehow unavailable, so his chief communications officer Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) fills the spot instead, but she does not give any satisfying answer because she does not know much about what is really going on inside her company. In fact, she does not even know where the hell her boss is now.

As time is running out for its main characters, the screenplay by Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf, and Jamie Linden often swings back and forth between broad satire and serious drama, and this approach is not always successful. While there is a nice amusing surprise from Budwell’s pregnant girlfriend, a comic moment involved with a certain cream recently approved by FDA feels too silly and distracting instead of lightening up the tense situation a bit with its raunchy aspect. The director Jodie Foster, who has steadily established a modest directing career besides her fruitful acting career since her directorial debut work “Little Man Tate” (1991), does as much as she can for maintaining the tension level on the screen at least during the first half of the film, but the screenplay eventually chooses an easy and predictable way out for conveniently wrapping up everything during its last 20 minutes, and the finale is disappointingly lackadaisical in its incoherent mix of pathos and irony.

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As a charismatic but superficial TV personality, George Clooney perfectly fits in his role as expected. With his undeniable star presence, he can be showy and flamboyant as required, and he is also effective during more serious scenes such as when Gates tries really hard for making a persuasive point for not only the guy threatening him but also many of his viewers. Although she does not share the screen with her co-star much, Julia Roberts, who recently got a significant career boost thanks to her admirable Oscar-nominated work in “August: Osage County” (2013), is believable in her frequent interactions with Clooney, and we have no problem in believing that their characters have known and worked with each other for a long time.

In case of Jack O’Connell, a promising young British actor who impressed us a lot with a string of breakthrough performances in “Starred Up” (2013), “’71” (2014), and “Unbroken” (2014), he is unfortunately the weakest link in the cast, but this problem is not entirely his fault. Even if you can overlook his imperfect New York accent which occasionally betrays Cockney cadence, his character is as artificial as many other substantial supporting characters in the film, and he looks petulant and pathetic rather than menacing or sympathetic as a result.

As keeping noticing many of its glaring shortcomings, I also observed other few good things in “Money Monster” besides the solid chemistry between Clooney and Roberts. I liked how Giancarlo Esposito handles his thankless role with calm, no-nonsense attitude, and I also enjoyed a small but crucial supporting performance by Lenny Venito, who gradually gains our attention and sympathy as a cameraman who comes to find himself bravely rising to the occasion in a way he never imagined. Like Clooney and Roberts, these diligent veteran actors deserve better than this forgettable thriller stuff.

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