It occurred to me watching Money Monster that George Clooney is Hollywood’s Malcolm Turnbull. Think about it. Both are rich and famous. Both are smart, good-looking and smooth-talking. Both exude confidence and charm. Like Malcolm, George has no difficulty persuading us that in any unforeseen emergency he’s the one who can save us from chaos or disaster, even a budget deficit or a dreaded hung parliament. But Clooney is something more. He’s one of that rare species – the old-style Hollywood leading man. A generation ago we had Cary, Gregory, Charlton, Spencer, Burt and the rest, all in their prime. Now we’ve got George. And we’re lucky to have him.
In Money Monster, directed by Jodie Foster, he plays Lee Gates, a financial whiz and host of a top-rated TV finance program which also features clowns and dancing girls, presumably for viewers who find financial matters too heavy-going. Cool, calm and collected, Lee Gates is just the guy we need when a mad suicide bomber is on the loose in Manhattan. It appears that in one of his programs Lee has advised viewers to buy bundles of stock in a company called IBIS, whose share price has mysteriously plummeted. Investors have lost around $800 million by following Lee’s advice, and naturally they’re rather cross about it.
The really angry one is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a blue-collar worker who’s blown his life’s savings. Kyle disguises himself as a delivery man, eludes studio security guards and walks coolly onto the studio set while Lee is hosting his latest show. Kyle is carrying two cardboard boxes, one containing a loaded suicide vest. He orders Lee at gunpoint to put on the vest while he holds the detonator and threatens to blow the place up unless Lee and the IBIS hierarchy provide some answers and deliver an on-camera apology for their deceit and incompetence. All this is being gleefully put to air by studio producers, though whether the rapidly growing global audience see the whole thing as a stunt, a TV sitcom, or a slice of real life is never clear.
All rather unlikely? I thought so at first, but in the gun-obsessed, violence-ridden, media-driven hysteria of modern America, where mass killings like the latest carnage in Florida are horribly familiar, the story seems all too believable. Jodie Foster has given us a highly effective thriller with powerful contemporary relevance. While Lee tries to calm Kyle down and play for time, Patty, the program director (Julia Roberts), passes on advice and instructions to Lee through his hidden earpiece. Then IBIS’s communications boss (Caitriona Balfe) has another idea. Why not buy Kyle off? Why not reimburse him the $60,000 he’s lost and hand him the cash on camera? Great PR for the company and a win for the studio! Meanwhile, the NYPD are descending on the studio in droves and police snipers are getting ready for action. But Kyle won’t back down. He’s convinced that the share price crash was due to fraud and not a computer glitch as alleged by the company.. Guessing who the real culprit might be isn’t all too difficult, but it gives the story a much-needed twist when the pace starts flagging about half-way through.
I’ve seen Money Monster described as a “comedy-thriller”, and quite a few critics have complained that it isn’t funny enough. But is it a comedy at all? I may be losing my sense of humour in old age, but I had a similar reaction to the recent Icelandic film Rams, a bleak pastoral drama, one of the saddest films I have ever seen, which others were calling a comedy. Where were the laughs in Rams? Where are the laughs in Money Monster? That moment when Lee is handed a tube of “erectile cream” before going on camera? Perhaps the term Money Monster is something of a joke in itself.
Julia Roberts gives one of her least glamorous performances – tough, sharp and engaging – and there’s strong support from an otherwise little-known cast, with Dominic West a standout as IBIS’s elusive CEO. The film works best when it looks below the surface of our frenzied, money-hungry culture to deliver some quiet home truths. As Kyle observes ruefully, what is money these days? Where do we find it? How do we know it even exists? Once money was measured in reserves of gold, a metal one could see and touch; now it consists of masses of photons whizzing about in cyberspace, guided by computers and digital gadgetry.
The screenplay is by Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden, none of them exactly household names. But it’s Foster’s film. More than once she’s proved herself as fine a director as she is an actor, and I have warm memories of her directing debut, a touching story about a troubled child called Little Man Tate. Clooney, too, has worked on both sides of the camera. He directed Good Night, and Good Luck, a brilliant film about the McCarthy era, featuring another media superstar, the CBS anchorman Edward R. Murrow, who helped bring about McCarthy’s downfall. Murrow was played by David Strathairn in Clooney’s film, but George would have loved the part for himself. The fictional Lee Gates may be a poor substitute for the real Ed Murrow, but Clooney makes the most of it. We’d expect no less of him.
Money Monster, rated M, is on national release.
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.