As citizens, voters and moviegoers, Americans right now are a fractured group, a squabbling bunch of blind men each shaking a fist at a different part of the elephant. Movies, particularly big-budget mainstream ones, aren’t nimble enough to keep up with quicksilver shifts in the national mood: The pictures we’re seeing today may have been germinating for months, if not years. That’s why it’s a small miracle that Jodie Foster’s superb thriller Money Monster is hitting theaters right now: It’s the movie of the moment, an expertly made, state-of-the-nation entertainment that also underscores just how little most of us know about the behind-the-scenes shell game the banking and finance industries are orchestrating, using our money as the disappearing nugget. If you could pour the nation’s collective financial anxiety into one vessel, it would take the shape of Money Monster.
George Clooney is Lee Gates, the dazzling host of a live financial-advice show that puts more stock in style than in substance (sort of like Jim Cramer’s Mad Money but with flygirls in hot pants). Lee often goes off-script, a recurring headache for the show’s producer, Patty (Julia Roberts). When she sees a delivery guy lurking in the corner of the set, just as the show has gone on the air, she thinks Lee is just pulling one of his spontaneous stunts. But this surprise guest is a surprise to Lee, too: He bounds into camera range and, at gunpoint, forces Lee into a vest laced with explosives. On camera, he rattles off a list of grievances capped with a demand that Lee fork over $800 million.
The intruder is a desperate working guy from Queens, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), who lost his inheritance after acting on a stock tip that Lee doesn’t even remember giving. Kyle doesn’t want that $800 million for himself: the loot is the cumulative amount lost by Ibis Clear Capital—a shadowy firm run by Dominic West’s Walt Camby—as the result of what alleged experts like Lee will only call a “glitch.” The word is repeated over and over in news reports, as if it were a viable explanation for what happened—Foster pastes those sound clips into a punk noise collage, kicking back at the term’s meaninglessness.
If you’ve seen the trailer for Money Monster, you probably think you know how it all plays out, though deep down you probably also know that the Hollywood marketing machine sells you the movie it thinks you want to see, just as the finance industry tells you what it thinks you want to hear. Money Monster is both subtler and bolder than the trailer makes it look. The camera moves to just the right place every minute, and the editing is crisp. Moments of nearly unbearable tension are broken by bursts of energy and even humor. (In one small but lithe recurring joke, a beleaguered producer, played by Christopher Denham, hoofs it through New York’s financial district on a series of near-impossible quests. When Patty orders him to get from here to there, pronto, he wails, “But that’s half a mile away!” His boss may be thinking in movie geography, but he’s the poor sod who’s actually got to walk it.)
If Money Monster is basically a piece of entertainment, it’s also a discomfiting one, in the spirit of Dog Day Afternoon and Network—its edges are serrated, sharp enough to cut. Foster and screenwriters Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf navigate the movie’s tone shifts with ease, knowing how to suddenly make us feel something for characters we might have found repellent just minutes earlier. Foster has good actors to work with, too: Clooney is almost too adept at flashing that snow-job showbiz smile. But he can also change course seamlessly, making us believe Lee as a man who finds, to his own great surprise, that he has a tiny sliver of a conscience after all. Roberts doesn’t get much screentime, but we hear her voice, a lot, through Lee’s earphone: When Kyle first takes charge, pacing and sputtering like a zoo tiger ready to burst out of his skin, Patty is Lee’s lifeline. “Just keep breathing,” she tells him, her voice cottony and soothing. She may as well be talking us down from our tree, too.
Clooney and Roberts may be Money Monster’s star selling points. But what would it be without O’Connell’s face? He gave a finely wrought performance in Angelina Jolie’s otherwise patchy 2014 Unbroken, and he was terrific in David Mackenzie’s 2013 prison drama Starred Up. Here, he stretches even further. O’Connell—who’s English but does just fine with the Queens vernacular—gets a lot of the movie’s civics-lesson dialogue, the kind of thing that may look fine on paper but usually falls apart when an actor has to say it. Yet when Kyle tells Lee, and everyone else watching at home, “They’re stealing everything from us and nobody’s asking how,” his anguish rolls out in waves, the sound of year after year of just getting by. In the movie’s most wrenching scene—one that may be almost unbearable to watch if you’ve ever fought bitterly with a partner over money— a person he’s let down berates him with escalating, horrifying vitriol. Despair and shame cross his face like an eclipse snuffing out the glow of the moon.
You could call Kyle, misguided in his approach but hardly crazy, a Marxist terrorist Robin Hood, a symbol of our anger at the arrogance of those who play with our money if it were nothing. But symbols in movies are mostly deadly, sodden things that have little to do with how we actually live. O’Connell offers us something else. His face is like a folk ballad, filled with everything you want out of life—but also with the shadows of everything that’s been snatched away.