Jodie Foster’s gripping, bitterly funny Money Monster is more than it seems

Unfortunately, the ads may chase off the people who would love it most

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The Money Monster trailer gives away far too much of the plot. This is a film about surprise and discovery, and people planning on seeing it shouldn’t watch the ads beforehand. But the trailer doesn’t reveal one thing audiences really might want to know going in:

Jodie Foster’s latest directorial project isn’t a conventional thriller. It’s a pitch-black comedy.

That isn’t remotely obvious from the TV spot, which limits the footage almost exclusively to grave life-on-the-line drama, and sets the action to the mournful strumming of Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils & Dust.” Like Foster’s previous directorial project, 2011’s ultra-weird little dramedy The Beaver, Money Monster is more complicated and appealing than it looks. But where The Beaver’s basic hook — Mel Gibson as a character who talks through a beaver puppet — was offbeat and absurdist to a distracting extreme, Money Monster announces itself with a deceptively conventional exterior that may keep away the audiences who would enjoy it most. What unfolds, beyond the hectoring about American greed, is a bleakly intelligent satire looking for bleakly intelligent viewers.

George Clooney stars as Lee Gates, the smug, garrulous host of a Mad Money-like stock-tips show that cruises along on gimmicky clips and leering language. Lee is just a few steps down from Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King on the "slick, self-satisfied asshole" scale, and his producer, Patty (Julia Roberts) is sick of him, and ready to move on. Then a desperate young truck driver named Kyle (Jack O'Connell) takes Lee hostage on live TV, strapping him into a suicide-bomber vest and demanding the cameras stay on so Kyle can speak to the country. Kyle lost his life savings on a bad stock tip from the show, thanks to a high-frequency trading company that abruptly lost $800 million to a "glitch." Kyle blames Lee — but even more, he blames Wall Street, the government, and the predatory American financial system in general. He also blames trading company CEO Walt Canby (The Wire's Dominic West), who's nowhere to be found.

Money Monster plays out as a hostage drama, with an agenda familiar from The Big Short. In the early going, Foster's film has a similarly jazzy, playful directorial vibe, and a similarly exasperated attitude toward financial malfeasance and lack of Wall Street oversight or regulation. But it has less real-world detail, and more broad, speedy narrative development. Patty and her crew — especially hapless comic-relief producer Ron (Christopher Denham) and PA Bree (Condola Rashad) — look for a journalistic solution to the problem. While trying to track Canby down, they grill his company's chief communications officer, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe). Diane, meanwhile, is capable and principled, but has conflicting agendas. The investigation, both with Diane and without her, is where Money Monster most cuts corners, reaching for brief comedic touches and quick plot developments over veracity. (Once again, cinema treats hackers as essentially magic.)

The high-speed investigation doesn't entirely hold up to scrutiny, but it proceeds at a smart, snappy pace, with plenty of compelling tension. Screenwriters Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf fill the story with surprises, cleverly acknowledging and dodging some expected clichés. The script isn't entirely watertight: Kyle veers back and forth between "sweet, sad kid" and "murderous maniac on the edge" a few times too often, based on the dramatic needs of the moment. O'Connell, the terrifically committed star of Starred Up, '71, and Unbroken, can only do so much to make him a person instead of an erratic plot device. And he's in the unenviable position of being the only primary cast member who has to play everything straight.

Money Monster

(Tristar Pictures)

But Clooney and Roberts — together on film for the first time since Ocean's Twelve — get a lot more leeway with their perfectly suited roles. Clooney seems to have settled into a comfortable vibe of playing characters balanced on the exact cutting point between charm and smarm. Over and over — in Burn After Reading, Up In The Air, The Descendents, Hail, Caesar!, and more — he's played men with movie-star charisma undercut by narrow pettiness. Sometimes that dynamic is hilarious, and sometimes it's tragic. Here, it's a little of both. Money Monster is less about condemning Wall Street than about watching Lee lose his flamboyant huckster persona one layer at a time, first to sheer terror, then to other considerations. It's a deceptively rich role, tailored perfectly to Clooney's strengths.

And Roberts (who's become polarizing, like every successful actress) has come into her own in roles that require a grave, frustrated intensity. Patty is laser-focused and effortlessly competent at her job, and she comes across like a character Foster might have played herself — the solemn adult voice in the middle of a reckless circus of misbehaving kids. Balfe plays Diane as more vulnerable and fearful, but equally determined. Without making an overt point about the dynamic, Foster turns Money Monster into a showcase for clear-headed, professional female characters defined by their work and their morals, rather than their gender. These aren't just satisfying roles, they're enviable and aspirational. The men of Money Monster play the emotional, irrational roles that incite the action. The women get to shape how the story unfolds.

Money Monster

(Tristar Pictures)

That unfolding is a perpetual and pleasant surprise. Money Monster takes some of its flippant-yet-angry tone and light-footed editing from The Big Short, but it has more in common with two Sidney Lumet classics. Like Network, Money Monster goes behind the scenes at a TV series for a grim satire of the industry, and like Dog Day Afternoon, it opens up into a distinctly New York story about a media circus and the way working-class people instantly empathize with troublemakers who stir things up and trouble the system. There's also a touch of Spike Lee's Inside Man in the way the story alternates the action inside the studio with the police response outside, led by a brisk, no-nonsense police chief, played by Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito. But while Foster echoes other films in tone and occasional plot particulars, her approach is still idiosyncratic and specific. She never loses focus on these particular characters, and the crucial shifts in how they relate to each other.

That leaves Money Monster fairly toothless as an indictment of Wall Street, America, or capitalism as a whole. But Foster isn't trying to send people away angry and ready for action. The characters' most obvious agendas aren't necessarily hers, and she doesn't take every manifesto to heart. She and the screenwriters only reveal their hand in the funny, bitterly cynical ending, which touches on the way the public reacts to big media events and ugly human drama.

Money Monster allows that drama to be taut and mesmerizing in the moment. And like The Big Short, it looks for the human wreckage left by the blind profit motive. But it's intelligent enough to note that most tragedies only have a lasting impact on people who experience them personally. Foster's daringly different comedy is more interested with observing its well-drawn characters, and what it takes to change them on a fundamental level. It's easy to see it as a drama that fails to fully address America's shortcomings. It's actually something better: an insightful comedy about human perspective.