The financial legerdemain lampooned in The Big Short was designed to be opaque and arcane — so much so that even the supposed experts didn't really know what they were doing. The scenario of Money Monster is much simpler, which is both a strength and a weakness. The movie is easier to understand, but that's because, as with so many Hollywood conspiracy thrillers, the big payoff is actually pretty small.
The film's villains are not real investment banks but the fictional Ibis Clear Capital and its CEO, Walt Camby (Dominic West). The protagonist stands somewhere between documentary and fantasy: Lee Gates (George Clooney), host of FNN's Money Monster, is a slightly camouflaged version of Jim Cramer, host of CNBC's Mad Money.
Lee's program features sexy dancers, silly props and the sort of macho bluster typical of sports-talk and drive-time radio. Also in the mix are stock tips, one of which recently was Ibis. It proceeded to tank.
To Lee, that's entertainment. But one viewer takes offense and arrives at the show's Manhattan studio with a pistol and what appears to be an explosive-packed vest. Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) takes Gates hostage while he's on the air, live.
The cops come running, but the person who's really in charge of the standoff is the show's flawlessly efficient producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts). She cues Gates and the crew while researching Kyle and juggling Ibis spokeswoman Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe).
Diane is on the spot because her boss was scheduled to appear on the show, but has gone missing. Is that suspicious? Does a bear market sleep in the woods?
Aside from using Ibis to represent all the rogue companies that have crashed and burned since 2007, Money Monster's agenda is to humanize Kyle and redeem Lee. Kyle is just a little guy from Queens who's been pushed too far. (It sounds like even farther, since O'Connell's accent betrays his British origins.) The thrice-divorced Lee is Clooney's usual silver-tongued rascal, self-serving and sexist, but just about to notice that Patty is kind of great.
As the woman who can oversee a bustling set and manage the bad-boy star, Patty is an obvious surrogate for the movie's actual director, Jodie Foster. Patty keeps Lee alive while following clues about Ibis's misbehavior that lead to hackers, quants and old-fashioned physical laborers on several continents. That makes her as formidable as Foster, a woman who could direct Mel Gibson in The Beaver.
One of the challenges Foster sets for herself is staging Money Monster in real time. The movie begins just a few minutes before the show does and follows the on-air hostage drama to its conclusion barely 90 minutes later. The action is set mostly in Ibis's and FNN's respective buildings, but ultimately it takes to the streets for Lee and Kyle's tense tour of New York's financial district.
The procession, conducted while dozens of cops stand ready, is not especially plausible but is well-choreographed. What deflates the last act is the easy explanation, and glib resolution, of the Ibis matter. This plot's tricks can't rival the perplexities and absurdities of the The Big Short.
The filmmakers do emulate that predecessor at the very last moment, which offers a few seconds of commentary by big-capital critic Robert Reich and ends with Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi's line that Goldman Sachs is "a great vampire squid." But the brief finale is much testier than the rest of Money Monster, which plays it straight with a topic that in reality is far more twisted.