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In its opening moments, "Money Monster" seems primed to rip into a twin set of fat, deserving targets: Wall Street and the cable TV hype men who pump it. George Clooney is Lee Gates, a dapper gasbag whose gimmick-laden personal finance show is like the unholy offspring of Jim Cramer and a late-'90s Mase video. With a gold top hat and backup dancers, Gates picks stocks and cracks wise, while his director in the booth, Patty (Julia Roberts), steers the show and gamely tries to keep him from chasing smug tangents on-air. Their working relationship seems authentic, a contrast to the chipper bloviating of their product. A would-be guest CEO cancels on them, so they improvise, and the show goes on.
Then: A scrubby dude with a gun and a bomb vest meant for Gates and for the absent CEO breaks onto the show and demands to know why a supposedly ironclad stock pick cratered. This guy, Kyle (Jack O'Connell, of "Unbroken"), lost his life's savings when this company, Ibis, incinerated $800 million overnight, due to what the CEO (Dominic West, forever Jimmy McNulty of "The Wire") had dubbed a glitch in the high-frequency trading algorithm. Kyle wants answers, and he's ready to blow up himself and the rest of the studio to get them.
It ain't a bad premise to work from, for a hostage movie: a desperate but ultimately relatable blue-collar type holding the media captive and interrogating capitalism. Better movies have taken smaller bites and at least drawn blood; "The Big Short" is the current standard-bearer, but even a farce like "The Wolf of Wall Street" had a discernible moral core. Trouble here is, director Jodie Foster and the screenwriters are eyeing such a large target (The System, man) that they forget to truly aim. "Money Monster" leaves the cabin loaded for bear and returns with half a rabbit pelt.
Even while propped on a too-broad indictment of trading culture, you've got the elements, sometimes successful, of a decent potboiler. Clooney and Roberts have broken in and out of multiple casinos together; even as they're connected by headsets only, you trust them to work their way out of a TV studio. And O'Connell, playing an outsider to the culture and to the workplace, feels authentically as if he stumbled into the movie from another plane of existence. He commands the momentum of the narrative, partly by squeezing off rounds, partly by continuing to ask the questions that the show's producers adopt: To hell with the glitch, how does a company lose such a vast fortune for its investors without any accountability?
Kyle actually brings an arguable point to his tirade that sounds like a thesis for a thoughtful movie. He tars big trading houses, and, again, the televised buffoons who carry their water, as a greater threat to America than foreign terrorists. That's a bold thesis! But it gets discarded as "Money Monster" sets about solving the mystery at the heart of its plot, and pulling in an Ibis executive (Caitriona Balfre) in some race-against-the-clock sleuthing. There, the movie runs into a narrative cul-de-sac. Namely, that while it proclaims to be railing against the wider economic exploitation that Wall Street represents, it needs a sui generis financial crime to move the events of the story.
So are they all bums and crooks? Or is this one uniquely crooked company we're auditing on live TV? There's enough action and energy to keep you hoping they can pull out a good answer, but the conclusion of "Money Monster" seems to work as a mini-review of the movie itself: business as usual, nothing much to see here.