The George Clooney & Julia Roberts hostage yarn “Money Monster” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) turns up the heat on Wall Street, but its uneven shifts between comedy and drama make it difficult to take seriously. Mind you, any movie that skewers the financial services industry is welcome because these opaque institutions need more transparency than they have offered for their enigmatic machinations. One day, perhaps, we may know what the money brokers are actually doing with our hard earned dollars. Meantime, Wall Street has always struck me as a crap shoot. Either you run huge risks to reap huge rewards or your audacity pays off in dirt rather than pay dirt. “Home for the Holidays” director Jodie Foster and scenarists Jamie Lindon of “Dear John,” Alan DiFiore of TV’s “Grimm,” and Jim Kouf of “National Treasure” make this problem a glaring point in “Money Monster.” Unfortunately, most of us already know this because we’ve watched either Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987) or his belated sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (201o). As for the claustrophobic hostage crisis that unfolds for three-fourths of “Money Monster” in the studio of a financial news network before the plot propels the characters out into actual New York City streets, you’ve seen it covered in more compelling movies like Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) or Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” (2006). Superficial, uneven, but above-average, two-time Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster’s fourth film as a director suffers primarily because the male characters are anemic. For a change, the guys qualify as airheads, while the gals are pretty astute. George Clooney, Jack O’Connell, Giancarlo Esposito, and Dominic West amount to nothing less than nitwits. None of the guys have an inkling about anything, but the women know what to do. At fade-out, the dames rise above the dudes. Neither the Wall Street skullduggery nor the logistics of outsmarting an unstable, naive gunman furnish any surprises. Indeed, the hostage drama is more compelling than the lackluster Wall Street mystery that triggers the gunman into action. If you missed the Oscar-nominated movie “The Big Short,” it details real-life Wall Street chicanery, but it is a far more complicated film to follow. Nevertheless, despite its toothless nature, “Money Monster” emerges as a suspenseful saga, until certain revelations undercut the tension in the third act.
Lee Gates (George Clooney of “Gravity”) is a cynical Financial News Network commentator, reminiscent of CNBC’s “Mad Money” pundit Jim Cramer, and he cavorts about his studio like a carnival barker. Meanwhile, Lee's veteran producer & director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts of “Erin Brockovich”), orchestrates the colorful graphics that enliven his on-camera antics as he dispenses stock tips for investors. Basically, Lee relies on his savvy insights to make educated guesses about monetary matters. Sadly, Lee’s expertise about all things Wall Street backfires on him. Before he realizes what has happened, Lee finds himself eye-to-eye with a pugnacious goon poking a pistol in his face. This intruder, who slipped stealthily past distracted security guards and invaded the FNN studio while the show was ‘live’ on-the-air, demands to know why Lee gave him such appalling information. Just about everybody in this 98 minute, R-rated thriller gets caught off guard at one point or another. A discontented, blue-collar, delivery man from Queens, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell of “Unbroken”), knows zilch about the financial industry except what Lee Gates predicts. He prompts Lee at gunpoint to don a vest packed with enough explosives to flatten a city block. Kyle brandishes the detonator in his other fist and warns everything about the consequences if he loses his grip. The only individual in the studio with a clue about what to do is Patty. She produces and directs Lee’s stock tips show. She gives Lee his cues and instructs the crew where they must be whether they are operating cameras or loading graphics. Patty galvanizes not only Lee, but also her crew into action to contend with Kyle as the N.Y.P.D. swarms into the studio with their sniper response unit. Eventually, Patty convinces Lee that he should play along with Kyle. Lee sheds his anxiety and struggles to mollify Kyle. Poor Kyle, it seems, squandered his late mother’s entire nest egg—some $60-thousand—and invested it in Ibis Clear Capital stock. Lee had hyped Ibis with such enthusiasm that Kyle sank every penny into it. According to Ibis, a computer glitch occurred, and the company lost $800 million, cleaning Kyle out. Kyle throws a temper tantrum and threatens to shoot anybody and then possibly blow Lee to smithereens while Lee and Patty scramble to unravel the secret behind Ibis’ meltdown. Unfortunately, nothing that Lee does satisfies Kyle. At the same time, the rest of the world has tuned into Lee’s show and is savoring the ‘live’ showdown.
If Kyle weren’t enough of a nuisance for Lee and Patty, the N.Y.P.D. poses another problem that generates white-knuckled suspense. When the police aren’t quietly evacuating the FNN staff, they are sneaking into position to end the confrontation with their snipers. As it turns out, beleaguered Captain Powell (Giancarlo Esposito of “The Scorch Trials”) is stunned when his men want to shoot at the bomb vest that Lee is wearing rather than at Kyle! The snipers assure Powell that they have an 80 percent chance of success at blasting the detonator off the bomb. Eventually, word reaches Lee, and he wields Kyle as a shield. Powell rejects their strategy as outrageous. Meantime, the globe-trotting, duplicitous, Ibis CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West of “300”) makes the foolish mistake of flying into New York to present his side of the story. During this chaos, the N.Y.D.P. coaxes Kyle’s wife Molly (Emily Meade of “Trepass”) on-camera in the hope that she will persuade Kyle to put down his pistol. Instead, an irate Molly berates Kyle without mercy for being asinine. Altogether, while “Money Monster” provides nothing new about Wall Street’s treachery, but Foster compensates with taut suspense that keeps you on the edge of your seat. .