Money Monster, director Jodie Foster's timely but too tidy hostage drama, stars George Clooney as Lee Gates, a clownish TV money expert (think Jim Cramer of CNBC's Mad Money), who is confronted by a disgruntled working-class investor named Kyle (Jack O'Connell) during a live broadcast of his popular Money Monster program. Kyle lost 60,000 dollars, nearly every penny he had, on a supposedly surefire stock tip from Gates, and now he wants answers. Wielding a pistol, he orders the host to strap on an explosive-laden vest and threatens to blow him up if he doesn't come clean about why the stock for IBIS Clear Capital lost 800 million dollars overnight -- Kyle isn't buying the firm's story that the loss was simply due to a glitch in an algorithm. IBIS CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) was supposed to be a guest on the show that day, but he bailed and can't be located, so it's up to Gates and his trusty producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) to come up with answers that will satisfy Kyle and keep him from detonating explosives that would kill everyone in the studio.
Money Monster strives to be a contemporary mix of Dog Day Afternoon and Network -- with a pinch of The Big Short thrown in -- but it lacks the visceral gut punch of those pictures and is never able to build any tension. One big problem is the A-list cast: Gates dons the suicide vest within the movie's first 15 minutes, but Foster is never able to make us believe that he might die. After all, he's played by George freakin' Clooney! Do the filmmakers actually expect us to believe that we will see Clooney's blood (or Roberts', for that matter) sprayed all over the walls in a big studio production? Not likely, so we never really fear for anyone's safety. Meanwhile, Foster and her trio of screenwriters (Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf) continually undercut any suspense they are able to muster with ill-advised bits of humor. This includes a scene halfway through with Kyle's pregnant girlfriend (Emily Meade), who goes on a blistering, expletive-filled rant in which she tells him he's worthless and should just kill himself. But it goes on so long and is so over-the-top that it elicits howls of laughter rather than horror. It's one of many instances that strain credibility. It also doesn't help that Kyle unleashes most of his rage early on, and thus, becomes less menacing as the story unfolds; it probably would have made more sense for him to simmer until his anger finally reached a boiling point. In addition, the picture's real bad guy is telegraphed pretty much from the get-go. As a result, the film yields no surprises and everything wraps up in a perfunctory fashion.
Clooney looks like he's having a grand ol' time in the beginning playing the snarky Gates, but as the hostage situation develops, he simply fails to command the screen or make us care about his character's fate. As for Roberts, she's mostly confined to a control booth and communicates with Gates through a hidden earpiece. It isn't much of a role for an Oscar-winning actress, but Roberts makes the most of the screen time she's given -- indeed, it says a lot that she makes us care more about Patty than Gates. But the real standout here is Caitriona Balfe of Outlander fame, as an IBIS executive who is determined to uncover the truth regardless of the personal cost. She is by far the film's most compelling and believable character.
The self-important Money Monster attempts to weigh in on our ongoing financial crisis, but all it manages to say is that there are some awfully shady, dishonest people working on Wall Street. Shocking! Here's some real financial advice: Don't shell out your hard-earned cash to see Money Monster in theaters; wait until it arrives on Netflix or cable or at Redbox. Or better yet, check out Dog Day Afternoon or Network and see what compelling drama really looks like.