Taut as a tug-of-war rope, timely corporate thriller "Money Monster" has not an ounce of fat on its slickly efficient, exceptionally self-assured bones. Heading an unblemished ensemble, George Clooney (2016's "Hail, Caesar!
") and Julia Roberts (2016's "Mother's Day
") are at the top of their games, fully invested in a provocative, socially adept project that gives them the too-rare chance to really act as they dig into their effectively penned characters. Guiding the proceedings along, director Jodie Foster (2011's "The Beaver
") and screenwriters Jamie Linden (2012's "10 Years
"), Jim Kouf (2004's "National Treasure
") and Alan DiFiore have crafted a film with the feel of a 1970s Sidney Lumet picture made in the 1990s yet precognitive enough to be set in an accurately depicted 2016 world.
One minute, IBIS Clear Capital was raved about as a can't-miss proposition by financial adviser Lee Gates (George Clooney), host of sensationalistic cable talk show "Money Monster." And then, seemingly overnight, stock prices plummeted, experiencing a net loss of $800-million. The company attributes this drop to an obscure system glitch, but struggling blue-collar New Yorker Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) isn't buying it. As Lee films his Friday episode of "Money Monster," Kyle finagles his way onto the set and takes the television personality captive. Strapping a vest full of explosives to Lee's body, Kyle wants a proper explanation and someone to pay for his ruinous investment advice. With cameras continuing to roll and show director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) rooted in the control room, the hostage situation fast becomes a media sensation. At the heart of this news story, however, real lives are at stake and a dishonest company faces a legal nightmare--a fact which Kyle, Lee and IBIS corporate compliance officer Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe) are exceedingly aware.
Set over a single eventful afternoon, "Money Monster" is a real-time cinematic page-turner, an exceedingly compelling, no-nonsense suspense drama anchored by Jodie Foster's keenly sharpened filmmaking prowess and her actors' engrossing command of the screen. The film's angry yet humane story shakes a critical finger at 21st-century big business while acknowledging the real victims who ultimately pay for their greed and indiscretions. The threat of heavy-handed messaging is always within grasp, yet Foster averts this trap; she makes salient points by trusting her actors and the power of cinematographer Matthew Libatique's (2012's "Ruby Sparks
") images without spelling anything out or falling into melodrama. Brief scenes where random people sit in coffee shops, bars and homes, gradually being drawn into the unfolding drama on the television screens, could have easily been overwrought, yet this, too, is captured with an authentic, suggestively loaded light touch.
The rub with being a megastar of George Clooney's rarified caliber is the occasional difficulty it is to separate his real-life persona from the fictional people he portrays. When he gets a juicy character, however, it is easy to see why he has been so professionally successful. As Lee Gates, a thrice-divorced hotshot who receives a lesson on the power of his words and the influence his relatively silly money show has on viewers, Clooney is wholly in his element and selling every moment onscreen with charisma and gravitas. Simply put, it's the best role he's had since his Oscar-nominated work in 2011's "The Descendants
." The same goes for Julia Roberts, receiving a part worthy of her talents and not requiring she wear a disastrous fright wig (see 2015's "Secret in Their Eyes" and 2016's "Mother's Day
"). Despite playing the majority of her scenes in a control room, the intimacy with which these are handled and the effectiveness of her face-to-face bookend moments with Clooney paint an indelible history and a trusted working friendship between Patty and Lee.
As Kyle Budwell, Jack O'Connell (2014's "300: Rise of an Empire
") believably embodies a twenty-something guy with mounting life pressures who has made an irrational decision it is too late from which to back down. The evolving dynamic between Kyle and his hostage is fascinating to watch as Lee grows to empathize with his plight. In an excellent supporting turn, Caitriona Balfe (2013's "Now You See Me
") owns her role as IBIS CCO Denise Lester, whose investigation into her company's stock collapse reveals dirty dealings happening right under her nose.
An undeniably commercial picture with something deeper on its mind than mere entertainment (although it is quite entertaining), "Money Monster" demonstrates how to tell a straightforward story with expert precision. The setup and even many of the successive narrative beats are on the familiar side, but this particular tale is spun with a present-day conscientiousness that allows it to feel current. Even when a key discovery near the start of the third act releases a certain amount of its built-up tension, the thematically rich material and the involving characters ensure interest levels do not lag. In trying to make a statement for the world to see, Kyle Budwell does not anticipate becoming a footnote to his own story in an attention-deficit YouTube society where cleverly edited footage can turn a serious issue into a punchline. If only for a day, at least he's left everybody talking.