Friday, May 13, 2016

Money Monster: A beastly good time

Money Monster (2016) • View trailer 
4.5 stars. Rated R, for brief sexual content, violence and frequent profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.13.16

Between this new film, The Wolf of Wall Street, Margin Call and The Big Short, one gets the impression that people have become deeply concerned about corporate malfeasance and Wall Street shenanigans.

Gee, I can’t imagine why.

The calm before the storm: Unaware that this day is about to become anything but average,
TV financial advice guru Lee Gates (George Clooney) and his producer, Patty Fenn (Julia
Roberts), discuss the talking points for their upcoming live broadcast.
Director Jodie Foster’s Money Monster may not be as imaginatively brilliant as last year’s The Big Short, but it’s just as entertaining and pointedly audacious. Scripters Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden set up a hair-trigger premise and then develop it with an unlikely — but quite successful — blend of suspenseful twists and scathing humor.

Along the way, they also skewer the 1 percent who’ve absolutely, completely — and without awareness or shame — abandoned any sense of comradeship with the rest of us ordinary mooks.

This is only Foster’s fourth big-screen feature as director, after having cut her teeth with 1991’s poignant Little Man Tate; she obviously chooses her projects carefully. “Money Monster” proves that the double Oscar-winning actress has matured into an equally capable shot-caller. This is the sort of endeavor that could have collapsed any number of times, in less skilled hands; she unerringly navigates the ship past all dangerous shoals.

With thoughtful, infuriating, hilarious and even unexpectedly poignant results.

George Clooney stars as high-profile financial TV guru Lee Gates, who has built a viewership on the strength of sideshow antics more befitting the local news clowns who used to dole out weather predictions while dressed in funny outfits. We get an extended view of Gates’ smirky, hyperactive — and insultingly patronizing — shtick as he begins one of his financial analysis/advice segments on an average day, under the much calmer guidance of longtime producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts).

It ain’t pretty.

It’s also a not very exaggerated jab at what a serious topic such as money management has become, in our cynical, bread-and-circuses era of cable/satellite infotainment. Any semblance of capably researched public service has been abandoned — goodness, that would be boring — in favor of keeping the gullible masses distracted. And hey: If Gates misstates, exaggerates or even lies today, he won’t even think about amending or retracting tomorrow; he’ll simply proceed with an all-new set of encouraging prevarications and half-truths.

Just like dozens of shrill, malicious and defiantly deceitful radio show hosts.

Trouble is, Gates is a bit stuck. Everybody has wakened, on this particularly morning, to the ghastly news that Ibis Clear Capital — a stock that Gates has hyped quite heavily, during the past weeks — has just “lost” $800 million. The investments and life savings of countless people have simply vanished, due to what Ibis execs insist was an unforeseen “computer glitch” in the program algorithm designed to facilitate highly questionable high-frequency trading (which has become a growing real-world concern since debuting in the late 1990s).

Accepting absolutely no responsibility for his involvement in this crisis, Gates blandly opens his show with a cheerful shrug, insisting that these are the breaks ... and hey, now is the time to really double down and buy more Ibis stock, since it’s so low!

We quickly get a sense, through Clooney’s performance, that Gates’ vulgar, ostentatious showmanship exists alongside a deeply rooted contempt for his own audience, whom he likely regards as the sort of dumb marks who’d repeatedly fall for a street-corner three-card monte huckster. Then, just as Fenn notices an out-of-place, package-laden delivery guy lurking at the studio fringes, said intruder bursts onto the set, pulls out a gun and — after shooting the ceiling, to prove that he’s not kidding — hijacks the show.

On live TV. As millions of viewers watch, both throughout the United States and all over the world. Including folks in Iceland and Korea (!).

The intruder, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), is a distraught investor who impulsively put his entire $60,000 inheritance — pretty much all the money he had — into Ibis. He’s scared and desperate; he’s also furious, and unwilling to accept the vague “computer glitch” excuse that Gates has just been hearing, via live remote, from Ibis chief communications officer Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe).

To emphasize the degree to which Kyle wants some comprehensible, real-world answers, he orders Gates — at gunpoint — to don an explosive vest concealed in one of the aforementioned packages: a vest with a detonator wireless controlled by a dead-man switch that Kyle holds in one hand. Then he chains and locks all the studio doors.

At which point, things truly get nuts.

The police immediately respond in massive force, having been mobilized by the same live feed that now has viewers glued to TV sets in homes, bars, community centers and store windows. The next step remains uncertain, though, because — from what bomb experts can tell, via the video feed — the vest contains enough explosive to level the entire building, along with everything in a 50-foot radius beyond.

By this point, savvy viewers have recognized that Foster is depicting these events in real time: a narrative hook maintained throughout the film’s 98-minute running time. That further heightens the tension, as we wonder where the heck things can go from here.

Unexpected and captivating places, that’s where.

DiFiore, Kouf and Linden keep us at the edge of our seats with several clever narrative bumps, while gradually blending the suspense with dollops of mordant humor (and plenty of well-placed swipes at the narcissistic, reality-obsessed mania that currently characterizes American culture).

Clooney is a delight. We’re accustomed to placing him in roles that reflect his suave intelligence and self-assurance: somebody who’s the smartest guy in the room. Lee Gates couldn’t be further from that archetype: He’s a condescending, glad-handing “pretty face” with no family life, and little respect for his studio colleagues. And when Kyle shows up, Gates also reveals himself as a sniveling, impotent coward.

But only initially. Once the crisis settles into a precariously dangerous status quo, Gates’ huckster instincts resurface, along with his mocking temperament. But something else has been activated; we see this in Clooney’s narrowed gaze. Something IS rotten, and Gates’ long-buried investigative instincts kick in as, with Kyle’s manic prodding, he begins to wonder about the recent activities of Ibis’ jet-setting CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West).

Roberts’ Fenn, in sharp contrast to Clooney, is cool, calm and collected: every inch a capable producer accustomed to looking simultaneously in a dozen different directions, and making just as many snap decisions. Fenn appears to like Gates, after a fashion, but Roberts’ indulgent expressions — particularly the sidelong glances — denote a woman not the slightest bit willing to tolerate his phony bonhomie.

Gates obviously knows this, and respects her for it ... but isn’t about to admit as much. They share an interesting bond, complete with its own crisis password: Sacagawea, which Fenn soon finds ample reason to use.

O’Connell, last seen playing the tortured Louis Zamperini in 2014’s Unbroken, is terrific as the dangerously reckless Kyle: the pluperfect portrait of a disenfranchised young guy at the last ragged end of his rope. O’Connell powers him with frightened impulsiveness, while also revealing glimpses of an ordinary fellow who knows full well that he has orchestrated madness that can’t end well.

Balfe’s Diane Lester is quite intriguing, and not only for her beautifully sculpted Irish features. At first little more than a perfectly outfitted and coifed corporate mouthpiece, Lester actually is too smart not to get personally involved with this unfolding crisis. Dennis Boutsikaris, in deliberate contrast, is revoltingly smarmy as the Ibis CFO.

Giancarlo Esposito strikes the right note as the take-charge police captain, and Christopher Denham adds some comic relief as Fenn’s harried production assistant. Lenny Venito, finally, makes the most of his role as one of the TV cameramen: a sturdy blue-collar worker to the core.

Foster and editor Matt Chesse build a terrific head of steam as these events plunge forward, the momentum and sense of peril increasing alongside Kyle’s mounting instability. The narrative propels us into an even crazier third act, topped by a coda that cannily indicts our collectively callous and dangerously short attention spans.

As also was the case with The Big Short, rarely does advocacy cinema wind up being this entertaining. Aren’t we lucky!

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