Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Money Monster

Director: Jodie Foster
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O' Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Emily Meade
Running Time: 99 min
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

In Jodie Foster's Money Monster, George Clooney plays the smarmy host of an over-the-top investing show in the vain of Jim Cramer's "Mad Money," but far worse and much more ridiculous. Within the film's first few minutes, it's abundantly clear that any viewer taking serious financial advice from this guy is of questionable judgment to say the least. But when such a viewer is allegedly screwed over by one of the show's "picks of the millennium," he makes his presence known in the network's studio with an explosive device and suddenly the show's a lot less ridiculous. If the film's opening scenes are purely set-up, then all the action that follows, unfolding in "real time" as the perpetrator takes an entire studio hostage on live TV,  are reminiscent of exciting of 90's thrillers like Nick of Time or Mad City (with which this shares a similar plot). This compares favorably to both, mainly because it's more skillfully made and doesn't go exactly where you'd expect, cleverly flipping the script to shift our allegiances and make a timely statement about media consumption that surely resonates stronger now than it would have in that decade.

The biggest hurdle the movie overcomes is the unusual casting of Clooney as slick, oily TV host. Luckily, this does only end up being an issue of casting since his performance overcomes it. He's tremendous in this as the situation escalates. And boy does it ever escalate, as Foster milks the most it can out of its single location premise and the chess game tenuously unfolding on national television between the host and a very unexpected guest. It's not damning with faint praise to say it's the best film she's directed since it's also a challenging one, requiring her to juggle a lot of balls in the air while simultaneously keeping a firm grip on tone. Could something similar actually happen? Given the current socio-political climate, it wouldn't be a stretch to say in some respects we're already there, with the line separating news and entertainment fuzzier than ever before.

Lee Gates (Clooney) is the flamboyant host of TV's "Money Monster," offering what he hypes as valuable advice to Wall Street investors as to which stocks they should buy and sell, and when. With a format more closely resembling a bad variety show, Gates raps, dances and dresses in crazy costumes while bloviating about the week's picks. All this chaos is controlled by his total pro of a director, Patty Finn (Julia Roberts), who not only has the daunting task of keeping things moving, but must constantly accommodate the needs of her egotistical host, who frequently goes off on tangents just to hear himself talk and shake things up. But when one of his "can't miss" stocks, IBS Clear Capital, tanks, disgruntled, working-class investor Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) sneaks into the studio as a delivery man, taking the crew hostage and holding Gates at gunpoint on camera.

With Kyle equipping the host with an explosive vest set to go off whenever he chooses to release his handheld trigger, it's up to Patty to keep cameras rolling and make sure the suddenly humbled and fearful Gates keeps Kyle talking long enough for them to survive. As police Captain Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) and an antsy hostage negotiator close in, Kyle demands answers to how he and other investors were wiped out by IBS, and he's not appreciating the canned ones given to him on-air by the company's PR director Diane Lester (Caitrona Balfe) on behalf of missing CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). There's more to this story and it's up to Gates and Patty to find out what, and the threat of an on-air massacre broadcasting live for the world to see is quickly becoming a very real possibility.

The pacing here is tremendous, with each passing minute containing its fair share of surprises as both men become increasingly desperate and irrational about their expectations of how this could be resolved, if at all. Clooney just might be our most likable star so seeing him as lying, conniving TV host is undeniably off-putting at first, but once it's clear what the situation is and the perilous danger Gates finds himself in, we're off to the races. It works for the actor that his character never quite buys into the persona either, and the longer he's on air with the volatile Kyle, the more he starts dropping his guard. This is where the casting of Clooney works magnificently, as the interaction he has with his uninvited guest changes with each new bit of information about him he uncovers.

Gates slowly undergoes this epiphany in front of a national TV audience that doesn't seem the slightest bit forced under Foster's direction, but rather a natural progression resulting from the predicament he's in. With lives on the line, the show becomes a truth serum of sorts and with each new revelation comes shades of complexity and doubt as to whether Kyle's necessarily wrong, even as his actions are. What's happening proves itself to be bigger than both of them so it's only fitting it plays itself out on the biggest stage of all.

If Clooney's nuanced performance invisibly guides us across the film's more treacherous narrative waters, just as much credit goes to Julia Roberts, who does it all through a headset, her interplay with him crucial to keeping the tension high. Some of the best scenes involve Patty trying to keep Gates from doing something stupid while simultaneously directing a live TV show that thrives on chaos for ratings. The running joke is that she seems more competent at handling this tenuous situation than the law enforcement professionals actually tasked with the job. Until the final act, there's very little involvement from them at all and what's sure to be a disappointment for Breaking Bad fans, Giancarlo Esposito isn't given much to work with in an underwritten, perfunctory walk-on. He can't be faulted for failing to leave a lasting impression in a role clearly not written to, even if it's a relief that this cinematic hostage situation depends more on the psychology of the participants than police intervention.

The film contains two legitimately jaw-dropping scenes certain to grab viewers' attention and hold it. The first involves the shocking appearance of someone important in Kyle's life while the second is an unusual appeal to the public by Gates. Both come from a script that proves to be smarter than expected, even going so far as to give Balfe's corporate character a believable moral awakening on par with the two leads. While the plot ties together a little too neatly in the end with all the characters converging in one of those big, showy scenes where everything's spelled out with expository information, at least this time there's a reasonable excuse: They're on live TV. Considering all the crazy events that occur in Money Monster, it's a credit to the underlying truth behind them and the intensity generated by the actors, that we rarely stop to question it.

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