Every weekday, Lee Gates (George Clooney) storms onto the set of his cable news finance show, the titular Money Monster, with the tacky bravado of a boxer ready for fight night. The show is a barely witting ode to hyperbole: Gates enters in a gold stovepipe hat with two gyrating fly girls on either side of him before dispensing his daily “Can’t Miss Stock Pick of the Millennium.” His director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), struggles mightily to prep him for interviews and keep him on script, but Gates is a kid in a toy store, enamored of his power and the dopey morning-radio sound effects at his disposal. When intruder Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) walks onto the studio of Gates’s live broadcast with a loaded gun and two bomb-strapped vests, the film girds us to thrill to the sight of the media being taken down a peg.
Money Monster sets its sights both higher and lower than the hacky punditry of a cable news blowhard. It’s at once a pressure-cooker hostage drama and a revenge fantasy targeted at the media’s willingness to buy into corporate obfuscation, but director Jodie Foster doesn’t succumb to didacticism until the film’s final moments. Until then, her film is wildly effective as a comedy of optics, observing how each of her characters reacts to the fact that they’ve become, for just a moment, part of the only news story that matters.
There aren’t really any heroes in Money Monster, not even Kyle, the working-class parcel driver from Queens who styles himself a class warrior when he invades the set of Gates’s show. Following a crash in the stock of a company called Ibis Clear Capital, the entirety of Kyle’s $60,000 inheritance is part of $800 million that vanishes into thin air, a result of what the company calls an algorithmic “glitch.” Kyle demands accountability from Gates, who trumpeted the stock on air, and Ibis’s CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic Cooper), who can’t be located on any of his fleet of private jets. Aware he’s headed to prison, Kyle tries to make a moral crusade of his moment in the limelight, but the criminal is diminished when the NYPD arrange for him to be publicly humiliated on live television by his pregnant girlfriend, Molly (Emily Meade). O’Connell, summoning determination with every flare of his nostrils, manages to muster some soul out of his quick decline from cult hero to lifelong dupe.
The optics are more nuanced, if equally far-fetched, in the cable show’s production booth, where Fenn and her staff have to engage in proper journalism in order to keep her host alive and her captor appeased. Fenn unearths a willing mole, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe), among Ibis’s highest ranks, just as she directs one producer toward quants and hackers in far-flung capitalist meccas. She sends another lackey, who’s just been testing an erectile dysfunction salve, scurrying across the city to dig for documents. All the while, Fenn calmly recites talking points in the ear of Gates, who has to overcome his outrage at being emasculated on his own television show in order to perform an honest public service.
As the director who’s dogged and graceful under pressure, Fenn is a perfect proxy for Foster, who manages the film’s interlocking tones of outrage and low humor with an unfailing rhythm and an engagingly casual cynicism. Unlike The Big Short, a film whose whimsy was couched in exhausting sanctimony, Money Monster treats the alternately corrupt and craven acts of the finance racket as a bewildering state of affairs rather than a problem to be corrected. Foster is refreshingly blunt on this point: Despite Kyle’s pleas for answers, there are no lessons to be learned here, only a couple of healthy reminders that the rich have dangerous power and the media are helplessly willing to enable them. Sharp cutaways to meme generators and average folks watching the drama on TV echo Foster’s sense of our fatigue, and the low-key performances the director coaxes out of Clooney and Roberts leave the uneasy suggestion that Gates and Fenn may go back to business as usual tomorrow.