Would you actually watch Money Monster?

I can’t imagine a world in which I might actually watch “Money Monster.” Now, I already paid for the movie, I actually mean the financial-advice-program-within-a-movie (that old trope!) led by fictional financial expert Lee Gates (George Clooney).

Like, I get it, it’s supposed to be Jim Kramer’s “Mad Money” and that had a lot of viewers and a disproportionate amount of influence on folks and Jon Stewart had that sick-ass takedown of him.

But watching the program in its eponymous film, Money Monster, I was struck by undeniable fact that I wouldn’t be able to stand this show if it actually existed. There’s a second-hand embarrassment involved in seeing a man Clooney’s age (how ever age-defyingly youthful he’s actually supposed to be) dance to money-themed hip-hop and do bad morning zoo-level sound effect shtick.

Yet, narratively, we need to believe that enough people cared for Lee Gates’ advice that he wrecked some lives, especially the one that came knocking at his door. Symbolically, this needs to be emblematic of a deeper set of woes. It needs to strike at the core of what’s wrong with modern political markets and modern capitalistic excess, as well as modern media. It never achieves either narrative or symbolical goal, the show ends up a weird shlocky bit the film keeps cutting back to that never attains any credulity.

It’s part of the fundamental miscalculation at the core of Jodie Foster’s Money Monster, something that wants to be Network for the Bernie Sanders generation and ends up being The Boondock Saints for the guy who keeps sharing Facebook memes about the 1%.

The hottest film of 1998, Money Monster picks up on the most eventful show of the titular television program when host Lee Gates is taken hostage live on the air by “Noo-Yawka” Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell). Demanding some explanation after a “security glitch” caused generic business IBIS Global Capital to lose its investors 800 million dollars, Kyle straps a bomb to Lee and threatens to blow him up if he doesn’t get the answer he wants. Gates’ producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), tries to help Lee and the police deal with Kyle and, as the situation with IBIS begins to unravel, get some fucking answers already!

Now, let me be frank. Had this film just been that thriller I describe up above, I actually have to say I would probably be recommending it. Not only is Jodie Foster actually a fairly excellent thriller director, maintaining a taut control over the atmosphere and her often limited and closed-in spaces, but the cast here is more than ready and able to pull off the thriller bits.

Clooney brings all his charm to bear as Lee Gates, Julia Roberts gives a damn for the first time in a while and actually gives us a character to hook into, and the incidental cast around them is more than game to play along with the thriller escalations. There’s a certain incredulity everyone is bringing to the situation that really works.

Hell, the worst performance in the film doesn’t really seem to be the fault of the actor. O’Connell’s Kyle Budwell has fewer notes than “4’33″.” But having seen O’Connell in Starred Up, I know he’s capable of more than the flat rager he’s playing here. He can do more than just shout and wail and talk in an accent that I imagine had a number of real “Noo Yawkas” praying for the sweet release of death.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t give him much more to do. To be frank, it doesn’t give the whole film much more of anything to do. But that’s a problem, because it’s sure as hell trying to be something more.

At some point, it became clear to someone that there needed to be a film that raged against the system that had cropped up in the 21st century, that voiced the anger of the people at an oligarchy that seemingly designed the rules to bend the common man over and fuck them. That someone was Adam McKay and that film was The Big Short. And before that it was Paddy Chayefsky and Network.

Money Monster lost those DVDs apparently. And as such, it’s trying to trod on the path of giants in toddler shoes. It seems lost not in anger, but in fantasy. It’s trying desperately to find some easy solution, some way that its characters can carve the path to beat this system. It reduces the whole game down to a single man doing evil and the will of the people to strike back against him. It’s the 99% rising up against the 1% to take back the 100%.

Admirable, but mistaken.

The simple brilliance of the films that it’s trying to harmonize with is that both The Big Short and Network understand that the system is larger than any man’s efforts to take it down. The system will destroy those fighting against it or the system will collapse on itself to rebuild in a different form. Both films are, yes, mired in darkness and cynicism, but it’s a darkness and cynicism that comes from understanding and intelligence.

Money Monster wants simple solutions, easy ways to make its audience feel better. It’s not a message film that has genre underpinnings. It’s a genre film that tries to convert its message into genre, making sure there’s a grand solution for its mystery that makes a neat little bow. That’s naivete on its best day and maliciously dangerous on its worst, telling its audience that overcoming the problems of society is one man’s fault and another’s solution.

This isn’t even getting into how little it ultimately has to say. Again, going where others have gone means that you absolutely must find your own path or else there’s little point to you having gone at all. Money Monster seems to have come to what it thinks are a few interesting conclusions such as “greed is bad,” “people are good,” and “the media can occasionally be irresponsible,” which isn’t so much a conclusion for a political film as it is the conclusion for a high schooler’s political blog. I know, I probably have those sentiments written somewhere in a dark, moist basement corner of the internet.

I’m not asking for a brilliant political treatise out of Money Monster. I don’t need The Federalist Papers: Dawn of Justice. But if it’s going to try to be more than of being a pretty solid mid-budget Saturday afternoon time-bomb thriller with some solid talent, then it needs to have something in its head that I couldn’t already get with my library card.

Grade: C-

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