George, Julia the key assets in tense, funny ‘Money Monster’

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Julia Roberts plays Patty Fenn and George Clooney plays Lee Gates in “Money Monster.” | TriStar Pictures

Even when “Money Monster” bends credulity to the tip of the tip of the breaking point, it’s an entertaining ride, reminiscent of tick-tick-tick thrillers such as “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Ransom” and “Inside Man” — albeit in a lighter mode.

It works as a social satire about those slick, superficial financial advice shows on cable TV; a commentary about the world of high-tech investment practices; a taut thriller, and a sobering, cynical examination of how quickly the public and the media jump on a story — only to hop right off after the wave of breaking news stories and viral videos have run their course.

This is pulpy, sometimes lurid fare, and the viewer will often be far ahead of the supposedly smart people onscreen trying to decipher the puzzle. But thanks to a stylish directorial turn by Jodie Foster and the shining star power of George Clooney and Julia Roberts (as well as a first-rate supporting cast), “Money Monster” rises above an uneven script that veers from clever and insightful to heavy-handed and obvious — sometimes within the same scene.

Clooney lights it up as Lee Gates, a silver-haired huckster in a tailored suit who is ringmaster of the hit show “Money Monster,” which is filled with so many theatrical gimmicks it makes Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money” look quiet, dry and dignified.

Lee is an arrogant and smarmy snake charmer who barely acknowledges his staff other than to bark orders at them as he saunters into the studio just in time for another live program.

Once Lee is on the air, he goes into full shtick mode: donning boxing gloves and hopping about with two scantily clad background dancers; pounding a big red button on his desk to ignite sound effects and visual punch lines; and invoking cheap double entendres, e.g., telling his viewers to have balls and take chances as the monitor shows a bunch of bouncing basketballs.

Clooney’s “Oceans” running mate Julia Roberts turns in one of her best performances in recent years as Patty, the director and executive producer of “Money Monster” and the clear grown-up in their professional relationship. Whereas Lee likes to wing it and ignore the prepared notes, Patty is the only one in the control room who can get him to listen at least once in a while.

Lee’s “Money Monster” is such an unpredictable, wacky show nobody is even alarmed when a sweat-drenched guy toting two cardboard boxes shows up on set in the middle of a live broadcast. Lee thinks it’s a gag sprung by the crew; Patty suspects Lee is up to his usual, unannounced tricks. Even after the guy pulls out a gun, everyone thinks it’s a prop —until he squeezes the trigger and fires a bullet into the ceiling.

NOW he’s got our attention.

The man with the gun and the boxes is one Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell). Kyle has lost everything investing in the IBIS corporation, whose stock Lee guaranteed as a safer bet “than a savings account,” and he’s a desperate man.

Inside one of the boxes is a vest wired to explosives. Kyle makes Lee put on the vest, and then he announces on live TV he will shoot Lee in the head and/or blow up the studio if he doesn’t get some answers about why IBIS collapsed.

Patty can’t cut the feed because Kyle has a cell phone and he can see the program in real time and he’ll know if they pull any tricks. (That’s a semi-plausible built-in excuse to have the entire drama play out on live TV, and just the first of a handful of “Wait, really?” moments you just have to go with it if you’re going to buy into this story.)

Once the premise is established, “Money Monster” kicks into a high-energy, sometimes very funny and occasionally legitimately tense thriller that touches on a number of familiar elements, including:

*The arrival of the cops, including a wise and measured captain (Giancarlo Esposito), and a meathead negotiator (Chris Bauer) who immediately writes Kyle off as a “loser” and a “loner.”

*Crowds gathering behind police lines, and patrons in bars and restaurants watching the drama unfold on TV and cheering and commenting as if it’s a reality show.

*The obligatory appearance of the significant other (Emily Meade), who is brought to the scene to try to talk some sense into Kyle.

*Lee taking stock of his own life (three failed marriages, a child he never sees, a viewing public that thinks he’s a clown) while gaining empathy for Kyle.

Nothing we haven’t seen before, but director Foster and the actors always seem aware they’re dealing in clichés — and those clichés are often turned upside down in a way that produces some big laughs. Absurd as it gets, we kinda believe most of this could happen, because have you watched the news this decade?

One of the disappointments of “Money Monster” is Clooney and Roberts have only a few scenes in which they’re sharing the same space. Granted, they’re in communication with each other for nearly the entire story — but most of that consists of Patty in the control room, talking in Lee’s ear via IFB while Lee is on set. But even via wireless remote, they have remarkable chemistry.

Next time they team up, here’s hoping the script puts them in the same room more often.


TriStar Pictures presents a film directed by Jodie Foster and written by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf. Running time: 98 minutes. Rated R (for language throughout, some sexuality and brief violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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