REVIEW: 'Money Monster' is a sloppy cartoon masquerading as a financial crisis drama


How do you feel about rule-breakers? Do you get a shiver of excitement from knowing someone with little respect for authority? Do they help expose the flaws in a broken system? Or are rule-breakers people who should be stopped – for the good of the masses?

Money Monster, the new film starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, seems to side with the latter. It tries so, so hard to be one of those “message movies” with a rallying call to stand up to big business and demand fairness for the average worker. It devotes its climax to exposing a corporate fat cat and getting him to admit that he bent the rules on Wall Street to make more money for his firm.

Yes, Money Monster does all of this, except in one of the most half-assed and irresponsible approaches possible. It adopts an “only in America” mindset that financial hardship should be met with terrorist-like direct action, with a desperate gunman taking over a live financial news show and later parading the host (who’s wearing a bomb vest) through the streets of Manhattan. Regular citizens come out to cheer this on, like some kind of a twisted version of the Occupy movement. The TV show staff dutifully cover it all in close-up.

Somehow, the filmmakers seem to think this is a good way to encourage financial reform. “Yeah! Go get ‘em, crazy guy! Threaten to vaporize that big, bad CEO on live TV. That’ll show ‘em to be careful with our money!” I honestly can’t tell whether we’re supposed to laugh, or worry that the United States is headed toward a Mad Max-style future.

Jack O'Connell as gunman Kyle Budwell, who takes over Gates' live TV show.
Jack O'Connell as gunman Kyle Budwell, who takes over Gates' live TV show.

This all starts with Clooney’s character Lee Gates, an obnoxious and selfish TV personality, whose show is obviously molded on CNBC’s Mad Money, featuring Jim Cramer. Gates’ style is to drop stock tips first and ask questions later, a habit that drives his director Patty (Roberts) crazy. As the film kicks off, a company called IBIS Capital that Gates recommended loses a cool $800 million in one day under mysterious circumstances. A couple of weeks later, a crazed delivery guy named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), armed with a gun and a bomb, storms the TV set and demands answers for why he lost his life savings by following Gates’ bad advice.

The shock and terror of Budwell’s attack wears off astonishingly fast. Believing that Budwell will keep them alive if they help him, Patty and Gates stumble across a conspiracy that may be the real reason the company lost so much of its shareholders’ money. Despite almost all reasonable common sense, Patty keeps the show running, even as Budwell shoots up the set and causes the police to surround the studio.

It’s funny that the movie would be so concerned with getting back at corporate rule-breakers when it has so much disregard for the rules of its own story. One of the first broken bits of logic in Money Monster is how the conspiracy gets unravelled. All the characters have to go on is that Budwell’s really angry, and that he doesn’t believe a computer glitch caused the stock price of his investment to crater. Other than that, he doesn’t have a lick of proof that corporate skulduggery is to blame.

So why would the TV crew decide to help him out? The movie certainly doesn’t have a good answer. I don’t know about you, but I doubt my research skills would be working well enough to crack open a conspiracy with a gun-waving lunatic holding me hostage.

Julia Roberts co-stars as Patty Fenn, the director of the show who decides to keep the cameras rolling.
Julia Roberts co-stars as Patty Fenn, the director of the show who decides to keep the cameras rolling.

And yet Patty and her team find lead after lead, as if someone granted them omniscience (not to mention the handy ability to ignore the active shooter threatening to kill everyone). Because the plot requires a conspiracy to exist so it can move forward, the characters conveniently find all the information they need.

In an inexplicable turn, Gates makes a big deal out of trying to use his fame to encourage the viewers to join together and raise the stock price of IBIS Capital. Why Gates does this is unknown – Budwell repeatedly says he isn’t interested in recouping his losses, and yet the film wastes whole scenes in an inspirational speech by Gates and its lacklustre aftermath. It’s just another example of how the film throws together contradictory concepts and tries to pass them off as drama.

These kinds of pointless scenes extend to most of the secondary characters too – the cops surrounding the building have the idea to bring Budwell’s pregnant girlfriend to the site and set up a video chat between her and Budwell, which is also broadcast on the show for some reason. When the girlfriend decides to berate and humiliate Budwell, it goes on at such length and in such detail (she literally screams at him, “…you cry when we f**k!") it makes you wonder if the cops are deliberately trying to aggravate Budwell into a rampage.

In the midst of all of this are Clooney and Roberts; ostensibly they are two of the bigger draws to the film, and yet Money Monster manages to use up all of Clooney’s good material in the first 10 minutes (mostly in the Jim Cramer references) and turns him into an uncharismatic stiff for the rest of the runtime. Roberts is left to look worriedly at things and not much else – her role is so empty that you can see almost any other actress doing it and getting the same results.

While part of me wants to believe that Money Monster started with a good premise and was a victim of poor execution, deep down I know that the window for financial crisis films is swiftly closing. A lot of what needed to be said about the 2007/2008 crisis has already been said by films like Margin Call, The Big Short and 99 Homes.

Money Monster presents itself as part of the same sub-genre (it’s packed with remorseful “why didn’t we see this coming?” remarks), but also as a cautionary tale for current and future participants in the stock market. Even this shows how the film is trying to have things both ways – a risky investment that ultimately leaves it with nothing.

Money Monster gets one and a half stars out of five.

One and a Half Stars

What did you think of Money Monster? Was it just a simple way to waste some time watching George Clooney and Julia Roberts on the big screen? Or is it a poor companion to other, better movies about the perils of the financial world? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!