In Joel Schumacher’s 2002 movie Phone Booth, Colin Farrell’s two-timing PR sleaze was held hostage on a payphone in a busy New York street by an unseen sniper and a police siege played out around him as he wrestled with his own redemption. Ten years later, again in New York, Man on a Ledge saw Sam Worthington climb onto the sill of the 21st floor of the Roosevelt Hotel and threaten to jump to prove his innocence of a crime he was framed for. Again, a police siege unfolded in real time. Both films made effective use of a simple set-up: the ticking clock and a fixed location. The Jodie Foster-directed Money Monster attempts the same high-wire trick, in the same city, except this time the action is confined to a small cable TV studio.
George Clooney stars as the bullish, rapping host of a stock-and-shares advice show, whose live broadcast is rudely interrupted by a man with a gun, played by Jack O’Connell. One of his first demands is that the cameras keep rolling. Cool-headed producer Julia Roberts speaks to Clooney privately via his earpiece, balancing a very real threat with the lure of a spike in ratings.
Clooney, seemingly modelled on Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s shouty Mad Money segment, albeit way more handsome, is quickly reduced from strutting peacock to cowering victim, which clearly plays against our own glamorous image of him. That, and the real-time concept, makes for an intriguing set-up. But Money Monster does not deliver on its promise.
O’Connell’s ordinary Joe (who’s unable to speak, it seems, without swearing – a shortcut that’s typical of the broad-brushstroke style of the screenplay by three writers) turns out to have lost his life savings after a “sure thing” tip proved a dud. Clooney pleads that he’s just the messenger, and that the real villain is Dominic West’s slimy CEO of a venture-capital firm. This incremental shift of focus – and blame – might have been convincing had Money Monster not been hidebound by its own limited time frame. Everything happens so fast, and yet, while it does, there are quiet longueurs in the studio that defuse the tension so effectively ratcheted up in the first act.
In that first act, you’re expecting a blend of Network, Dog Day Afternoon and recent hedge-fund films like The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street. But it lacks the conviction and deep sense of understanding of those films. You learn very little about the way the stock market works from this film. That share prices can go down as well as up is pretty much it for dazzling insight.
As a piece of slick entertainment, the film still finds time to wobble tonally between social satire and tense, race-against time nail-biter. (Without spoilers, I will say that there is a later scene of levity that comes directly after one that hinges on lethal threat – a mood swing that you have to be as confident and controlled as Die Hard to pull off. Having already lost its narrative nerve by then, Money Monster also loses its authority.)
We are expected to buy Clooney’s redemptive “journey” even though it happens over the course of just 90 minutes. He’s always a watchable actor who oozes star quality, but here he struggles to make his character’s transformation real.
There is certainly a lot of star power in the studio, and O’Connell holds his own between Clooney and Roberts, proving that his current ascent is no fluke (and that he’s as comfortable with an American accent as he is with his own East Midlands twang), but few supporting characters get time for a look-in, and the inevitable police presence – captain Giancarlo Esposito (Breaking Bad) and negotiator Chris Bauer (The Wire) – are given little to play with. Only Caitriona Balfe (Outlander) emerges from the sidelines, as West’s communications chief and lover, whose motivations are at least opaque.
Money Monster could have been a focused rerun of Phone Booth with added topical bite. Instead, it collapses under the weight of its own acting talent and commits the biggest crime of this kind of high-concept act – it breaks its own rules and moves to another location.