Hating on Wall Street is the new national pastime. And Jodie Foster, in her fourth film as a director, goes for the burn. That she does it in the form of a vividly entertaining action thriller starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts is icing on the cake. Like last year’s The Big Short, Money Monster wants you to laugh till it hurts. But Foster’s subject isn’t just the corrupt financial system but the human beings getting mangled in its gears.
A stellar Clooney plays Lee Gates, the host of TV’s Money Monster, in which he gives stock tips between clownish dance numbers and comedy bits. (Think a more extreme version of Mad Money‘s Jim Cramer.) Gates treats everyone like crap, including Patty Fenn (an excellent Roberts), his long-suffering producer, who’s thinking of jumping ship. Then, midshow, a guy wired with explosives pushes into the studio, points a gun at Gates and holds him hostage on live TV. The guy, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), having lost his savings on a Gates tip, wants revenge and a chance to expose a rigged system.
That’s the setup, which Foster engineers for maximum, real-time, ticking-bomb suspense. As Budwell moves Gates downtown to Wall Street to confront the CEO (Dominic West) who blames a technical glitch for his company’s flame- out, Foster moves her film from a pulse-quickening nail-biter, with SWAT teams and choppers swirling, to an incisive look at a beleaguered America undergoing a crisis of faith.
Clooney has plenty of fun mocking the empty suit he’s playing, but he ups the ante by showing the fear, self-hatred and buried integrity that are eating at Gates. And Roberts makes her harried producer an oasis of calm in the gathering storm. What the script lacks in emotional subtext you’ll find in their richly detailed performances. Unlike Budwell, Gates hasn’t let his rage against the machine push him over the line. Not yet, anyway. Foster’s film doesn’t doubt that money rules our lives. But it does wonder, provocatively, why we’re dumb enough to let it.