Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review: "Money Monster"

Just a few thoughts, as our newest talent, Aly Caviness, is handling the main review over at The Film Yap. Make sure to head there to read in its entirety.

"Money Monster" is a well-executed cinematic effort with tightly bookended ambitions. Unlike "The Big Short," it's not trying -- or, if it is, not trying very hard -- to be an all-encompassing indictment of Wall Street and the corruption of modern digitized market trading. It aims for small observations and dramatic tension.

It gives lip service to The System and how bad it is, but then leans on a narrative that makes clear it's a rotten apple or two who are actually mucking things up.

George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the host of the titular television show in which the smart, smarmy personality gives stock tips and ass-kisses the financial masters of the universe, in between embarrassing hip-hop dance moves and weirdo costumes. It's a slight exaggeration of Jim Cramer and his ilk, but only slight.

It's a hostage story in which some dumb mook off the street took Lee's stock advice and lost his entire inheritance from his mother, and now wants revenge, an explanation or an apology.

Directed by Jodie Foster from a screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf, "Monster" provides a couple of terrific moments that I appreciated.

The first is when Lee, after first having got over the shock of having his show interrupted by a gunman who straps him into a bomb vest, finally gets around to engaging the guy, a truck driver named Kyle (Jack O'Connell). He's a talker, so he figures he'll talk to the young man. That's when he learns how much Kyle lost: $60,000.

Sixty grand? Lee asks, shocked. You're gonna kill me, maybe die yourself, over chump change like that?

Lee is a man who brags about sharing dinner at an expensive restaurant with at least one other person every night since the 1990s. He's got his millions, three ex-wives, thousand-dollar suits, etc. He's lived at the top so long, he can't even conceive of a working schmoe having to slave away at $14/hour, taking a year to save up the money he'll spend on a weekend getaway.

The second moment is when, trying to verify something allegedly said on his show a few weeks ago, Lee is forced to watch tape of himself played back on the screen. All this is happening, I should mention, on live TV, with Julia Roberts as Patty Fenn, the director in the control booth trying to keep things calm.

Lee watches the playback of himself in some ridiculous outfit, doing a dance a man of his years should not be attempting, saying stuff because it makes for good TV and not because it adds up to an ounce of fiscal sense. Clooney, who shines playing flawed men, gives a little dip of the head, his gaze faltering downward, and we bathe in his confrontation with his own meager worth.

He's a clown who revels at playing the clown, until he's forced to breathe dip the smell of the face paint, and is sickened.

Alas, the rest of the movie falls into predictable patterns. The cops come to take out Kyle, a negotiator is brought in, the action eventually leaves the studio, a weird sort of alliance forms between Lee and his captor, etc. Patty is the level-headed island of calm trying to keep all these vying forces in balance. Roberts is solid, but it's the kind of role any number of actresses could do just as well.

There is a good surprise or two. My favorite is when someone close to Kyle is located and brought in to talk him down, something we've seen many times before, and events do not transpire in any way we expected. For a brief moment, the movie pushes us out on a limb. We're delighted by the feeling of an abyss yawning; but then our steps are nudged back to the safe and dull path.

Dominic West plays the CEO of IBIS, the big corporation whose stock tanked despite Lee's reassurances to his viewers; Caitriona Balfe is the PR chief who goes rogue for reasons unexplored; Giancarlo Esposito is the head of the police force, uttering urgent things we can safely ignore; Lenny Venito is the podunk cameraman who keeps on shooting despite the danger to himself; and Christopher Denham is Lee's flunky producer tasked with anything the boss wants, including trying out an erectile claim before it goes on the market.

"Money Monster" plays out in live time, and Foster is adroit at balancing the tension and danger, stirring the pot when needed and backing off the heat when the audience needs to absorb information or take a breath. The movie also has a pleasing streak of dark humor to it, much of it deriving from Lee's feckless charm.

All the stuff about trading algorithms and international hackers being brought in to help is distracting or strains credulity. But this is the sort of movie where you have to just go along with the ride. It's a day trade of a film, serving its purpose but soon left behind.

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