By Mark Greczmiel
Like many movies, “Money Monster” had a fairly long road to the big screen. Seven years ago, screenwriters Alan DiFlore and Jim Kouf sold their script about the host of a TV financial show being held hostage by a disgruntled investor. During the next few years, the project slowly evolved, with “We Are Marshall” writer Jamie Linden coming in to work on the script after DiFlore and Kouf became too busy with their successful TV series, “Grimm.” Actress/filmmaker Jodie Foster who hasn’t helmed a movie since 2011’s “The Beaver” read the screenplay and wrote a long letter to the film’s producers making the case why she should direct this story. With that, things began to movie more quickly. “Oceans 11” co-stars George Clooney and Julia Roberts signed on to star and the film went into production in New York City.
Clooney plays “Lee Cates,” the host of “Mad Money”-type of investment show that features stock picks teamed with flashy visual and sound effects. To describe Lee as cocky would be an understatement. After finding out a colleague will be dining solo, he brags: “I haven’t had dinner alone since the 90s.” Clooney usually plays debonair characters but manages to pull off the Jim Cramer-style of antics, including hip-shaking dance moves for his TV audience. Roberts plays Patty Fenn, the producer of the show who battles both frustration and affection for the star and who has already decided to take another job.
One of the their usual shows quickly goes south when a young man armed with a gun and explosive vest takes over the live broadcast. Kyle Budwell (played by Jack O’Connell from “Unbroken”) has lost all his money after acting on of the TV host’s stock tips and wants answers.
At this point, the story might have easily resorted to following predictable developments: Call the cops, negotiate with the gunman, build trust, etc.
What makes this movie stand apart is that it does use those developments, but then puts an unpredictable spin on them. Example: bringing in the guy’s pregnant girlfriend to plead with him to give up seems like a natural call. But actress Emily Meade delivers a scene-stealing performance when her reaction to the situation is totally unexpected. Another nice twist is Clooney’s character making a heart-felt appeal to his viewers and getting an unanticipated response. The movie often goes in directions that the audience does not see coming.
The acting here is superb. Roberts and Clooney have only a handful of scenes where they are in the same room and most of their interactions are over the intercom or on the phone. Yet their obvious chemistry together still comes through.
Foster and the producers also assembled a first-rate supporting cast, including Irish actress Caitriona Balfe as the troubled company’s P.R. person. That type of role often turns into a stereotype but not here, with the character slowly becoming more nuanced. Also noteworthy is Lenny Venito as a loyal studio cameraman and Christopher Denham as a harried associate producer of the show. Both these characters provide a lot of well-timed laughs that help ease the tension.
The climax to the movie gets slightly unbelievable (the NYPD must be rolling their eyes at some of the tactics portrayed) but despite that, “Money Monster” is still quite worthwhile. Foster and crew have delivered a formula film that has enough twists to keep audiences both off-balance and entertained.
3 1/2 popcorn boxes out of 4