CANNES, FRANCE – MAY 12: (L-R) Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, George Clooney, Jodie Foster and Julia Roberts attend the “Money Monster” Photocall during the 69th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 12, 2016 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Clemens Bilan/Getty Images)
  • Festivals

Money Monster Rampages in Cannes

The wattage on the marches amped up with the screening of Money Monster and the appearance of its cast on the famed red carpet. George Clooney was accompanied by the radiant Julia Roberts and Caitriona Balfe and to add to the bona fide Hollywood glamour, it helps when the director is herself a seven-time nominated, two-time winner of Golden Globes as well as a Cecil B. deMille recipient. Jodie Foster strode into the Palais for the premiere screening of her fourth directorial effort.

In the film a disgruntled investor (Kyle Budwell) barges into a Manhattan broadcast studio where taping  is in progress of the titular Money Monster, the kind of financial advice show which mixes stock tips loud gimmicks, dancing girls and garish special effects, a Wall Street infotainment program that will remind some of such boisterous analogs as CNBC’s Mad Money. In the aftermath of the subprime crash that program’s host, Jim Cramer, was criticized for the outsized market bullishness that some saw as complicit in the losses of many investors.

In Money Monster the fictional host, Lee Gates (George Clooney), is similarly more interested in showy pizzazz and its effect on his ratings than in sound financial analysis, but when the desperate Jack O’Connell takes him hostage on live air we learn that his histrionics can have painful real-life consequences. Jack, you see, a sad sack minimum wage earner with a baby on the way, has invested all his savings on a stock which crashed shortly after being loudly touted by Gates. Broke, heartbroken and armed with a gun Jack forces Lee to wear an explosive vest threatening to pull the trigger unless he gets an explanation.

As the drama plays out on live TV (network feeds are apparently never cut in this version of the world), Gates’ veteran director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) tries to defuse the situation from her control booth, first evacuating al but essential broadcast personnel and then alternately strategizing with her hapless talent via the earpiece, trying to negotiate with the hostage taker as well as the trigger-happy SWAT team that has surrounded the building.

In dramatized form Jack’s raw anger can be said to encapsulate the feelings harbored by more than one small investor toward the faceless and inscrutable financial complex that cost many a life saving or family home in the wake of the worldwide crisis fueled by speculation and stock ratings manipulation in not-so-long-ago 2008. Jack demands an atonement of sorts from the host that cost him all his savings and the public explanation of why the stock tanked. So Patty and Lee and their producers find themselves forced into a kind high pressure investigation . With the threat of a massive explosion representing a kind of amped up metaphor of journalistic deadlines, they have to find out what caused a particular stock to inexplicably collapse.

“This isn’t the first movie about somebody who is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore,” director Jodie Foster recently told the HFPA owning up to movie’s obvious debt (no pun intended) to films like Network and Dog Day Afternoon. “There’s  nothing greater than a Sidney Lumet movie and I love those movies and (it’s) such an honor to even work in that tradition, and to even be named in the same breath as Sidney Lumet”. Dog Day Afternoon is perhaps the most obvious reference here as a hostage situation is the dramatic engine of both. As its illustrious ”predecessor” Money Monster is most effective in the claustrophobic confines in which it defines and ratchets the conflict between the characters. And since journalists don’t rank far behind financial analysts in the public disapproval scale, there is some perverse pleasure in watching them squirm, forced to perform the kind journalistic due diligence they never did before.

Once it leaves the confines of the studio, as it eventually does, the tension is diminished and the story seems to lose some of its bearings, becoming  burdened as it is with the somewhat arcane details of the fraud that’s been perpetrated: a narrative involving precious metal futures, labor unrest in a developing country and software shenanigans spanning Singapore to Reykjavik. Like in films like Ace in Hole, it is the extreme premise that works best in making us contemplate the absurdity – and the moral implications – of the media frenzy that ensues. This is especially true given the fine job of both Clooney and Roberts in creating characters whose work relationship and friendship is tested to the extreme. And Foster in fact explained to the HFPA that her main interest was in exploring the characters’ arc and the dynamics of their relationships.

The story however begs “big” questions about the equity of a financial system presently at the center of a contentious election, about media and spectacle, about public engagement and apathy and about ubiquitous technology, by choosing to focus principally on the interpersonal dimension and the procedural side of the story, it is hard in the end to avoid the feeling that those opportunities are not as fully explored as they could be.