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"MONEY MONSTER"
(2016) (George Clooney, Julia Roberts) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: A financial TV host and his producer must contend with an irate investor taking him hostage live on the air, resulting in a hasty examination of the stock price drop that created the situation.
PLOT:
Lee Gates (GEORGE CLOONEY) is the flamboyant TV host of the financial news show "Money Monster." While unsuccessful at marriage, he's made lots of money mixing financial advice and entertainment, but his longtime producer, Patty Fenn (JULIA ROBERTS), has had enough and is soon going to leave for other ventures, although she hasn't let him know yet. That has to wait, however, as 24-year-old Kyle Budwell (JACK O'CONNELL), irate about losing $60,000 he invested in IBIS Clear Capital, manages to get on the set and take Lee, cameraman Lenny (LENNY VENITO), and others hostage. He's upset that Lee highly recommended the stock that recently tanked -- to the tune of $800 million -- and wants both answers and an apology.

Able to speak to Lee via his broadcast earpiece, Patty tries to keep the situation from turning deadly -- a predicament heightened by the fact that Kyle has outfitted Lee with a bomb vest and holds a detonator switch in his hand -- and sends producer Ron Sprecher (CHRISTOPHER DENHAM) off to get answers as quickly as possible. They eventually get IBIS Chief Communications Officer Diane Lester (CAITRIONA BALFE) on a remote live interview, but she initially only reads from the corporate playbook, all to keep things contained and protect her boss and lover, IBIS CEO Walt Camby (DOMINIC WEST).

At the same time, NYPD officer Capt. Powell (GIANCARLO ESPOSITO) sets up a command post nearby and eventually sends some of his men into the building. As Lee and Patty try to prevent Kyle from doing anything too hasty on the set, they begin digging into what caused IBIS' stock to tank, resulting in revelations none of them or Kyle had been expecting.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Back in the spring of 2009 my fellow former William & Mary classmate Jon Stewart, as he was oft known to do as the long-standing comedy host of "The Daily Show," laid into those partially responsible for some parts of the financial meltdown of 2007 and 2008. Namely, that was CNBC, the fact that their financial analysts didn't notify viewers of the pending collapse, and "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer having urged his followers to buy Bear Stearns just days before the icebergs hit.

Stewart, in his standard fashion of mixing comedy with political and common sense outrage, took down Cramer and his network in a spectacular fashion. And while he likely didn't suffer as much as the everyday investor, he made a point of calling them out for mixing financial advice and entertainment into an unholy vehicle sure to run off the road and drag unsuspecting investors over the cliff with them.

Similarly outraged, Kyle Budwell also has a beef with bad investment advice. Yet, rather than take those responsible to task on his own TV show, he invades another, and takes its Cramer-esque host hostage on his own "Mad Money" type program. That's the premise of "Money Monster," the dramatic thriller from director Jodie Foster not only named for the financial entertainment show at its core, but also for the sort of creature money and greed has created among the wealthy.

In it, George Clooney plays a variation of Cramer, a flamboyant host who uses lots of film and video clips, sound effects and graphics to get his point across in an "I'm smarter than you so listen up" fashion. His past advice to buy IBIS Clear Capital -- that's just tanked to the tune of an $800 million loss -- has resulted in Budwell's irate investor having lost his recent $60,000 inheritance he put on the stock recommendation. And now Kyle wants answers and an apology from Lee who he takes hostage at gunpoint before dressing him with a fashionable bomb vest.

And so begins the tale -- penned by Jamie Linden and Alan DiFiore & Jim Kouf -- where the host and his longtime producer in the control booth (Julia Roberts) try to keep things from blowing up, metaphorically and literally. In short, it's a mixture of the recent (and fabulous) dramedy "The Big Short" with Dustin Hoffman's terrific 1970s thriller "Dog Day Afternoon" by way of "Broadcast News."

If only it were as good as any of those films. It's not horrible by any means, and the cast certainly makes it watchable while Foster keeps things moving along at a brisk pace to get the nearly real-time story told in less than 100 minutes.

It's just that as a thriller it's not that thrilling (for various reasons, but perhaps mainly due to various added bits of humor that are presumably supposed to serve as comic relief but only make the tone feel uneven). And as an indictment of the financial investment world and those who cover it, it's neither as insightful as "Big Short" or as scathing as Stewart's dual "Daily Show" exposť.

The performances are generally good, but O'Connell's troubled investor mostly resides in a two-dimensional space. He's mad, he's armed, and he wants an explanation and apology, but that's about it, eventually resulting in him burning up the powerful emotions early on and then only simmering after that, all while ending up in over his head. That's obviously designed to let Clooney and Roberts' characters (along with those working for them) pick up the slack and heavy lifting to take the company's CEO (Dominic West) and Chief Communications Officer (Caitriona Balfe) to task for what's happened.

A bit of that works, but it feels more rote than truly inspired, intriguing or serving as an edge of your seat meets smart thriller. I would have preferred to have seen the investor be someone of Jon Stewart's caliber, a smart but sarcastic guy with plenty of facts he needs to get out into the public, with a powder keg at the end of that line to keep things suspenseful and unpredictable. By the time the kidnapper investor and hostage host end up leaving the studio for some face-to-face time with those responsible, I really could care less (not to mention various TV production plot developments not being realistic and thus taking me out of the action).

In the end, "Money Monster" is akin to an investor you may know who has some facts and says them with vigor, but ultimately isn't as informed or, conversely, as entertaining as they could and should be. For a better experience, I suggest a double feature of "The Big Short" and Jon Stewart's two episode take-down of those who profit from mixing financial advice and entertainment. This film rates as just a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed May 11, 2016 / Posted May 13, 2016


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