Nowadays, the issue of money has become a big issue on film. Last year saw the Oscar-winning film The Big Short tackle the housing collapse, while Martin Scorsese tackled corporate greed a few years prior with The Wolf of Wall Street. With Money Monster, director Jodie Foster makes her return to cinema after three years with a tense political thriller that is meant to explore the themes of greed from a more universal standpoint. The story focuses on a TV personality (George Clooney) who becomes victim to an investor (Jack O'Connell) who lost thousands due to his bad advice. What happens from there is a mixture of soapbox politics, sly dark humor, and tense action. It may not be the most succinct statement of our financial times, but it continues the trend of being highly entertaining.
There's something that is immediately disarming about casting Clooney as Lee Gates. With a trustworthy charisma, he comes across as nothing more than a comedic folly for financial advice. His show, Money Monster, is full of what is considered good advice as he presents it with flashy power point presentations and constant lowbrow jokes. He is essentially an entertainer with an edge. It becomes even more difficult to disassociate Gates from his fun loving persona just because of how confident and smart he seems to be. As he dances in flashy outfits and jokes about balls, he gives advice that to a casual viewer makes sense. You trust him because he is fun. What isn't known is that it is largely in part because of the crew behind the scenes, specifically Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), whose advice comes into his head through an earpiece.
The film immediately begins to apply layers to the main question: Who is to blame for the financial problems? O'Connell's Kyle Budwell blames Gates, who is being fed information by Fenn, who is underneath several other figures up through Walt Camby (Dominic West), who runs the company that screwed over Budwell. Soon what starts as a tense battle in a studio room begins to spread across the globe. As Budwell's face becomes seen nationwide, his chance to speak atop a soapbox becomes more prevalent, and his anxiety kicks in. Suddenly Gates and his happy-go-lucky demeanor is replaced with a negotiator. It reflects what makes Clooney such a captivating presence, especially as he is forced to keep bombs and guns from blowing up at every turn.
What is rather impressive is Foster's use of direction. While it doesn't do much to separate itself from other similar thrillers, it manages to do a captivating job with what it has. This mostly comes through slow but unnerving direction, especially as Budwell begins to lose confidence. Even if the story is on a deeper level political, it is easy to see this merely as a story about survival against a crazed and tragic figure. What is also impressive is that for a film that hinges on life and death for most of its running time, it manages to have a dark humor about it. Right as things become tense, Foster cuts to a jab or a point that relieves the viewer of some stress. Considering how intricate things become, it becomes more and more needed as thing continue. It may not do much beyond conventions, but there's no denying that Foster knows how to keep things in order.
If there's one thing to commend besides the direction and script, it is the three central performances. Clooney does a good job of defusing tension by balancing his cocky demeanor with a more serious and mature vulnerability. Roberts is possibly even better, if just because her character is given more fodder. The mixed bag comes with the at times impressive work of O'Connell, whose tragic villain role may at times be a mouthpiece for Foster's political views, but inevitably works in making the common man sympathetic even as he's holding a gun to someone's head. What works best is that these three performances gel together so casually that even the moments that don't work feature plenty of endurance. In this three ringed circus, everyone has their occasional upper hand in the situation. What's fascinating is seeing who ends up being on top.
Money Monster may not be as concise or entertaining as other financial dramas and thrillers of the past few years. However, it's one of the more enjoyably tense films to come out this summer. With enough ideas on its mind, it manages to be an exploration of the modern financial climate while also occasionally exploring how the media addresses it. The film is maybe too ambitious, but it is a commendable form that definitely warrants Foster's momentary hiatus from film. While it is sometimes on the nose with its issues (specifically with a recurring Del the Funky Homosapien rap song), it still feels engaging and adult in ways that few mainstream films nowadays do. It may not be perfect, but what it lacks there, it makes up for with interesting choices.