Lee Gates (George Clooney), arrogant host of a financial tv show, is taken hostage live on air by irate investor Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) who lost everything on one of his tips. With a bomb strapped to Lee’s chest and trigger-happy police crawling through the studio, a tense stand-off ensues.
Jodie Foster is hardly the most bounteous of directors; Money Monster marks only her fourth time behind the camera for the big screen since her debut in 1991 with Little Man Tate. On the basis of this, she should really up her output for Money Monster is a tense, tightly plotted, energetically directed ninety minutes that deserves a far bigger audience than it will get.
Starting with the opening of slimeball Lee Gates’ hit financial tv show, the Money Monster of the title, things quickly get out of hand as deliveryman Kyle appears on set and takes Gates hostage. Twenty-four hours earlier a trading algorithm ‘glitch’ caused $800m to be wiped off the value of IBIS Capital and Kyle has lost his entire $60k nest egg, which he’d invested in IBIS on the basis of Gates’ advice. In a scant ninety minutes we not only get a brief lowdown on the stock market, capital trading and the huge amounts of money in play across the planets fibre optics but a quick blitz around the world, introducing the various people in play plus a complete subversion of hostage movie rules, forcing us to keep our eyes glued to the screen. It’s a tour de force of skill, a highly kinetic movie where most of the action takes place in a small tv studio or even smaller control room.
As the situation develops, the police arrive and begin taking up sniper positions, Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend is found and Lee, fully out of bluster and charm, investigates what really went on at IBIS. Foster then completely messes with established conventions. The snipers are instructed not to shoot Kyle but target Lee instead – Kyle has a dead man’s switch and shooting Lee’s explosive vest, an 80% chance shot with an 80% survival rate, is deemed the best course of action – which results in the wonderful switcheroo of Lee the hostage shielding himself from the police with Kyle the hostage taker. Kyle’s girlfriend does not behave at all as you’d expect and all the while calm and centred producer Patti (a never better Julia Roberts) stands her ground and barks instructions (in the year’s best wordplay so far, she demands someone track down that “fucking quant”, ‘quant’ being short for quantitative analyst).
This would be good regardless but, with one exception, the superb casting elevates Money Monster to something else. There are few male leading men today who could pull off the roll of Lee Gates, a scumbag sleazeball you root for and really don’t want shot or blown up and Clooney nails it completely. Julia Roberts hasn’t had a good meaty role for a while now but Patti Fenn allows her to get her teeth into some good dialogue and tense moments. Casting Derby-born, still largely unknown Jack O’Connell as a down-at-heel New Yorker could have been risky, but the Brit pulls out all the stops – and a near perfect accent – to deliver a nuanced performance in Kyle of someone who’s reached breaking point, is doing the unthinkable yet is still sympathetic. Only Caitriona Balfe (so good in tv’s Outlander) as IBIS executive Diane Lester misses, solely on he basis of her woeful accent, a veritable mixed salad of standard American, Brit and native Ireland.
Interestingly, once out of the studio and on the streets of New York the film loses some energy, and the meeting of IBIS CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West) and our two leads is serendipitous to say the least, but these are small gripes against a near perfect picture. More films could do with a shorter running length and it’s testament to Foster and editor Matt Chesse that Money Monster could have been a lot longer and just as good. Granted, the title is pretty poor and with no (longer) huge names above the title, many multiplex visitors will choose the blockbuster in Screen 1 instead. Our tip for the day is to go against the crowd and invest in this.