Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mad Money: Moderately amusing spare change

Mad Money (2008) • View trailer
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and much too harshly, for mild sensuality and a fleeting drug reference
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.24.08

Although unlikely to set the world on fire, Mad Money is a breezy little caper romp that provides ample opportunity for stars Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes to display their light comedy chops.

Although their first score falls short of setting them up for life, Nina (Queen
Latifah, left), Bridget (Diane Keaton, center) and Jackie (Katie Holmes) become
giddy over the mere fact that the scheme worked ... and that it can be repeated.
The production values are modest, and Glenn Gers' script doesn't tread any particularly provocative ground; aside from the high-wattage cast, this is the sort of pleasant diversion that usually turns up as a made-for-TV movie ... or, back in the day, would have been the bottom half of a movie theater double- feature.

Which is not intended as condemnation. B-films with no particular pretensions often are far more entertaining than their bigger-budgeted cousins.

Perhaps most impressive is the degree to which Diane Keaton, 62 years young, carries this film; she just gets better and better. Finally content to abandon all those Woody Allen-esque behavioral quirks that became her stock-in-trade for so many years following Annie Hall, Keaton now is comfortable in a broader range of moods. Here, she's the most methodical and organized of a trio of quite unlikely bank robbers, and she's quite credible as a white-collar master criminal.

Not so credible as a mop-wielding cleaning woman, but hey, we can't have everything.

Director Callie Khouri, who won an Academy Award for writing 1991's Thelma and Louise before becoming a hyphenate and directing and scripting 2002's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, has an ear for the gal-chat that bounces between the three protagonists. Better still, all are sympathetic characters, and that's important: We're expected to identify with them, even as they turn larcenous.

But Gers' script is quite aggravating in one respect: its reliance on a flash-forward framing device that reveals, right away, that our heroes are being grilled by the cops. In other words, they've been caught, and we learn this even before we get a sense of what they'll do to attract this sort of attention.

Even clumsier is the talk-to-the-camera technique that Khouri employs a few times; this gimmick almost never works in a conventional film, and should be reserved solely for serious historical projects such as Reds.

We're thus robbed of a great deal of the story's potential suspense. There's no question of whether they'll get busted; our musings now are restricted to when and how. That's a daft artistic decision.

So: Ignoring the intrusive flash-forward, events actually kick off when Bridget Cardigan (Keaton) returns home one day and learns that husband Don (Ted Danson), for years a successful corporate bigwig, finally has given up trying to find a new job after having been downsized out of his previous position. The bills have piled up in the meanwhile, and the only possible salvation involves selling their palatial home ... which seems to strike an oddly gleeful response from their so-called neighborhood "friends."

Willing to pull her own weight but lacking any meaningful skills, Bridget eventually obtains a menial domestic job at the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, where she schleps cleaning carts under the watchful gaze of Glover (Stephen Root, hilariously anal), the meticulous security chief. While scrubbing, buffing, spritzing and washing her way from one end of the maximum-security building to the other, our humbled heroine concocts a deceptively simple way to steal some of the stacks of worn money that are earmarked for shredding each day.

And that's the best part of the plan: Since this money is tagged as destroyed, nobody will miss it.

The scheme requires the participation of two confederates: Nina Brewster (Queen Latifah), who actually tosses bundles of bills in the shredding device; and Jackie Truman (Holmes), a "cart girl" who moves stacks of money from one department to the next. The free-spirited Jackie agrees without a second thought; Nina — a single mother raising two young sons, who doesn't want to lose them — requires a bit of persuasion.

Queen Latifah's character and performance add a bit of dramatic weight to a story that otherwise would be as carefree as young Jackie. Nina has worked hard to shelter her boys from criminal temptation; she's reluctant to engage in the hypocrisy of behaving differently herself. Additionally, she has a healthy respect for the stupid behavior that inevitably attracts the cops.

Considering that Queen Latifah usually takes roles that are far larger than life, her performance here is a welcome change.

Holmes, absent from the big screen since her small part in Batman Begins, hasn't lost any of her giggly charm. Outwardly, Jackie seems little more than a screwball ditz, but she has a few hidden talents ... such as the ability to "feel" when something is about to go wrong. Bridget and Nina scoff the first time, but they soon learn to respect Jackie's feelings.

Gers adds another odd sidebar to Jackie's backstory: the fact that she has been diabetic since childhood. This little detail seems inserted solely so Bridget and Nina can misconstrue the syringe they spot in their new friend's purse, which leads to the script's clumsiest moment: a truly stupid "lecture" on the evils of drug use. And then it seems as if Bridget and Nina never do learn about Jackie's insulin dependence, which makes the whole issue even dumber.

Another odd point about Jackie: Although she bounces, dresses and behaves like a voluptuous little pop tart, and one therefore would expect that she has a healthy physical relationship with her beloved husband, Bob (Adam Rothernberg), these two never exchange as much as a kiss ... whereas Keaton and Danson are all over each other.

This seems so wrong, when considering a bubbly sexpot such as Jackie, that one wonders if Holmes' notoriously possessive real-world husband were standing just off-camera during all scenes with Rothernberg, to ensure that things didn't get too physical.

Anyway, Bridget's scheme works, and soon the three women are bundling stacks of their own cold cash. But then, despite Don's repeated warnings, Bridget just can't get enough; the threat of discovery subsequently increases and increases until...

...but then we already know what happens next.

Fortunately, Gers saves a next-next for the finale, which tosses in a few mild but effective surprises.

The result is an uncomplicated good time at the movies, assuming one is willing to overlook "heroes" who indulge in felony-style larcenies. But then we've always held a soft spot for good-natured criminals with hearts of gold, whether in The Italian Job or The Thomas Crown Affair. Keaton, Holmes and Queen Latifah make an improbable but engaging team.

No comments:

Post a Comment