A friend once said that the way to identify whether a song is good or not is when you have played it ten times you don't hesitate to play it an eleventh time. The terrible ones we know we don't listen to more than once. But what of the songs that get airtime with you of less than or equal to ten plays? We don't shun them but we don't pay much attention either. Money Monster is the film equivalent of such songs - you'll pay it some attention, but only so much.
The film has George Clooney playing Lee Gates, the egotistical and glib host of a loud and garish financial TV show called Money Monster. Following the nosedive of the share prices of Ibis, a company that Money Monster had assured was a safe bet just a few months earlier, he finds an unexpected guest on the sets. A broke investor (Jack O'Connell) turns up with explosives and takes the studio hostage insisting on an answer as to why his money was lost. Lee, and his super resourceful director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), try to defuse the situation which just keeps escalating.
This makes for a good thriller format. The writers do some good work, with the tension slowly building as the screenplay unfolds. They also manage to throw in some humour that actually makes you laugh. The director (Jodie Foster wielding the megaphone for the fourth time) shows a certain surehandedness required in thrillers. The claustrophobia in the studio (which is where much of the movie plays), the quick exposition on money in the digital age, the choreography of an on-street protest procession, and the parallel thread approach (because of the real time nature of the narrative) are all done competently.
The performances are as you'd expect them to be (although Clooney is a bit too polished for the cheesy material the rather colourful show needs). Julia Roberts, in particular, nicely enacts the kind of placid that is needed to play dead when a bear is sniffing at you. Jack O'Connell and Caitriona Balfe lend quite believable performances.
Indeed, Money Monster does salvage itself as a thriller. But not without slumping under its own weight. The material that this film bases itself on is too serious and too complicated for the rather offhanded approach accorded to it. Plot-wise, the films that come closest are Network (1976) and The Big Short (no Indian release) which work with the questions of media and money, but Money Monster demonstrates neither the insight nor the subtlety required for such content.
There are a number of missteps made. For instance, the TV show is intentionally made to be garish enough to be repulsive. Sure, they want us to loathe it, but the thing is that an actual TV show which thrives on public consumption is barely ever that loathesome on the face. The aesthetic is not the problem, the content is. That quality of being viscerally attractive yet intellectually repulsive is not something that can be easily brought out on film. Which is probably why Money Monster doesn't even try.
These are however lesser flaws - the biggest trouble with films like these is that they portray trouble as a big black snake in an otherwise white backdrop. While in reality trouble and evil are more of a many-headed Hydra spread all over in a grey premise making it extremely difficult to single them out, and practically impossible to eliminate. But the film takes an easy way out by giving us a villain to despise. Once we have the bad guy established, we move away from the real issue (which is almost always systemic). All we need is for this guy to take the blame.
It is the refusal to do such a simplification that gives a film like Eye In The Sky (Alan Rickman's last film appearance) a certain sublime quality. A quality that Money Monster cannot accord to itself (it tries but lets it go too easily).
At any rate, it becomes quite satisfying escapist fare. And that isn't exactly a bad thing. Like those songs you play a few times and forget, Money Monster holds your attention while you watch it, but you best leave it alone after that.