Money Monster combines the anger of The Big Short with the basic setup of the 1997 movie Mad City. Lee Gates (George Clooney) is the host of a flashy financial TV show, a la Jim Cramer on Mad Money. Gates is in the middle of explaining how a tip of his went wrong when a man walks in with a gun and straps a bomb vest on to the host. This man is Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), and he lost a lot of money investing in a company that Gates recommended. He wants to know exactly what went wrong, and to stay alive, Gates and his producer Patty (Julia Roberts) must get to the bottom of this financial mystery.
Like The Big Short, Money Monster tackles the absurdity of the modern financial system, but it does so with much less sophistication. It pins the failures of the system on singular figures, the few villains that seek to manipulate the markets while the poor average Joe loses his pension. And the movie somehow makes heroes out of its TV show host and producer, failing to study their real complicity in creating this problem, making them out to be blameless victims that ultimately redeem themselves through heroic action.
The film just has trouble latching on to the meat of the matter. It invests a lot in satirizing the brash silliness of these cable TV financial news shows, but also makes it clear that those involved, including the self-absorbed host, are ultimately decent people who also want to know the truth. At the very end of it all, it almost makes it out that the only thing that really mattered in all this drama is the relationship between the host and the producer. Never mind the people that got hurt. Never mind the scandal at the heart of the story. All that matters is that host and producer are friends again.
The film ultimately trivializes the very real pain that people went through during the financial crisis. It turns their struggles into a joke at worst, and at best, something to be forgotten as the credits roll. The film isn’t very effective as a thriller, either. There are long stretches where the film seems to forget that the characters are supposed to be in danger. The direction doesn’t turn the screws tight enough, the film much more interested in the specifics of TV production than it is with the plight of its characters.
The film’s star power is impressive, but it isn’t nearly enough to make up for the deficiencies. As Lee Gates, George Clooney doesn’t quite capture the manic irresponsibility of Jim Cramer at his prime. Clooney turns up the smarm, and it becomes difficult to take him seriously when the movie gets into making its statements. Julia Roberts is stuck behind a character defined by her profession, very little of her personality shining through the TV producer façade. Jack O’Connell plays Kyle Budwell as a hopeless schlub, the kind that would never seem motivated enough to do the things the character actually does.
If The Big Short didn’t exist, Money Monster would still be pretty inessential. Even if one could overlook the bungling of the elements pertaining to the financial collapse, the movie still just comes off as a preachier, more tonally confused remake of the Mad City, a movie that wasn’t very good to begin with. The people involved Money Monster ensure that there are a few moments worth watching, but overall it just feels like a misstep for everyone involved.