Taut thriller deftly plays on economic anxieties

We live in economically perilous times, an uneasy reality that is splashed across headlines and blared from TV screens daily. Last fall’s The Big Short tapped into this national disquietude with a cerebral, offbeat explanation of how the current mess got started.

This spring, director Jodie Foster mines the same territory for more entertaining purposes with a glossy thriller called Money Monster. Furiously paced and tensely topical, the movie centers on a flamboyant, self-important TV financial “analyst,” Lee Gates (George Clooney), loosely modeled after CNBC’s Jim Cramer. Gates and his broadcast team, led by his director, Patti Fenn (Julia Roberts), blithely view the daily machinations of the financial world as just another form of facile entertainment for the couch-potato masses.

Gates dispenses his careless recommendations and advice with an eye on the ratings and with little thought to the potential consequences. Affluent himself because of his celebrity, Gates is unaware, or perhaps unconcerned, that his cozy association with the moneyed class he covers makes him complicit in their misdeeds. However, there are people on the receiving end of his tossed-off advice.

Enter Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), an aspiring but ill-informed blue-collar worker who gambled on one of Gates’ “sure thing” tips and lost everything he had. Budwell decides that Gates and his crew are due for a reckoning for his personal financial setback and takes the TV personality hostage while live on air, demanding explanations and redress.

The rest of Money Monster plays out as Gates and Fenn quickly grow consciences (and heretofore unseen investigative skills) to get to the bottom of the corporate fraud that led to Budwell’s fiscal and personal meltdown.

Director Foster plays out this caffeinated premise with a sure hand, launching the viewer through the story with confident editing and high polish. If the movie wasn’t so effectively entertaining, one might accuse Foster of being manipulative, because Money Monster hits all the marks for brainy thrillers: a backstage glimpse into the endlessly fascinating world of TV production; appealing stars playing characters who morph from slick to sensitive; a timely exploitation of the national obsession with money and its mysterious methods of investment; and just for good measure, the mind-focusing impact of guns and violence to amp the tension up a bit.

And indeed, we are in for an exciting roller-coaster of emotions here. However, after the ride concludes and with a few moments of further thought, the screenplay’s inconsistent details—which we missed as we sailed by—begin to emerge. And we realize that we, like Gates’ bedazzled viewers, have been had. The film wants us to think that it is a searing indictment of the financial system’s disregard for the little guy when it, too, is mostly a loud, albeit well-done, bit of show biz trickery, a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Mind you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with cinematic roller-coasters. And Money Monster is an especially fun one. Just don’t mistake it for anything more substantial than an amusement park ride

BiggerSplash_June2016A Bigger Splash

What a fascinating mess of a movie! A Bigger Splash, the first high-profile film of Italian director Luca Guadagnino, is set on the tiny resort island of Pantelleria, where an unlikely rock star (Tilda Swinton) and her photographer boyfriend (Mattias Schoenaerts) are vacationing while she recovers from throat surgery. Their respite is disturbed—violently, in more ways than one—when her former producer and paramour (Ralph Fiennes) invades the island with his 20-something daughter (Dakota Johnson) in tow.

What follows is a curious mishmash of styles and moods as these theatrical characters careen around one another in a grab-bag of questionable motivations and shifting alliances.

Fiennes is revelatory in his beyond-exuberant performance as the bon vivant Harry, and Swinton is her expected inscrutable self as singer Marianne. But the film itself is neither especially coherent nor profound. It has the same sick appeal as a car accident or a fire, an event that you can’t look away from, even while you feel slightly guilty about it.

Mark Fields
Mark Fields has reviewed films for Out & About since October 2008. In addition, he has written O&A profiles of documentarian Harry Shearer and actress Aubrey Plaza. Mark also has written on the movies for several publications in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and his home state of Indiana, where he also served as on-air movie critic for Indianapolis’s public radio station. Mark has been an adjunct instructor of film history at Rowan University since 1998. A career arts administrator, he is the executive director of Wilmington’s Grand Opera House and now lives on Market Street. Mark spent the fastest 22 minutes of his life as an unsuccessful contestant on Jeopardy…sadly, there were no movie questions.