But whereas “Network” casts a wide net, synthesizing its own wild-eyed demagogue with more believable moments, “Money Monster” wields a blunter edge. Like the Cramer show it skewers, in which the host’s every utterance is accentuated by hyperbolic sound effects and non sequitur cutaways, Foster’s suspenseful treatment of the material is fun to watch but not the dramatic statement its blaring tone would suggest.
At its worst, the screenplay — co-authored by Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden — has a shrill, reductive quality as it sets up the kind of fast-talking, no-nonsense media ecosystem that allows a self-satisfied pundit like Lee Gates to thrive. “We don’t do gotcha journalism here!” announces show director Patty (Julia Roberts) prior to the day’s broadcast, following that up with a line most viewers will probably think along with her: “Hell, we don’t do journalism, period.”
Fortunately, such thin pronouncements are ameliorated by cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s elegant camerawork and a rapid-fire editing strategy that veers between backstage chatter, on-set banter and its ramifications on countless television screens. Nothing in Foster’s previous career as a director, stretching back to 1991’s “Little Man Tate” and continuing most recently with the irreverent character study “The Beaver,” attempts such an aggressive rhythm of activity. On a purely technical level, “Money Monster” never drags, particularly once Kyle bursts onto the set and starts making his demands.
O’Connell, who has shown much potential for intense loners in “’71,” “Starred Up” and Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” mostly just barks orders and wrinkles his brow; Clooney, on suave autopilot, at least fits the part of an egotistical showman. But these are broad caricatures in a story that demands exactly that, so the simplification works for large stretches of screen time as Foster ratchets up the tension with dashes of black comedy. The best moments arrive as Lee grows increasingly confident, stalling for time by essentially hosting his show and digging into his assailant’s complaints. (“You’re not a genius,” he asserts, “you’re a stockbroker.”)
Ultimately, it becomes clear that Kyle’s real enemy isn’t the TV personality but rather the multi-million dollar corporation that Lee suggested viewers invest in. Elusive CEO Walt Canby (Dominic West), an empty suit who’s the movie’s real villain, provides Lee and Kyle with an excuse to team up against a shared problem — a man who represents the Man, the guy responsible for the systematic corruption that skewed the judgement of both hostage and captor.
This mutual point of interest leads to a highly incredulous third act that unfolds with the whole world watching. And yet even as Foster maintains a fair amount of suspense whenever Kyle’s gun veers toward another target, “Money Monster” has a blithe quality, as if none of the high stakes really matter because the whole movie has been designed for a broader critical purpose.
But that purpose never gets anywhere substantial beyond its first act; Foster concludes with a shrug, as Clooney and Roberts grin at each other while a nearby television delivers the hard truths. Among the several pundits glimpsed in the movie’s closing moments, the one who stands out is Robert Reich, the valiant defender of the working class at the center of the 213 documentary “Inequality for All.” That movie, which finds Reich assailing income inequality by targeting Wall Street’s debilitating impact on wealth disparity, does a cleaner job of making its case. “Money Monster” doesn’t build on that focus so much as it turns up the volume on the same whiny song.
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