Hollywood reached its maximum natural disaster potential roughly two decades ago, sending down a hail of movies about megastorms (Twister), supervolcanoes (Dante’s Peak), and earthbound asteroids (Deep Impact, Armageddon). Although the industry still peddles in weird weather (Sharknado 4), studios seem to have turned their attention to a new type of scary movie—the unnatural disaster flick, which derives its shocks not from acts of God but from acts of bankers. Films in this category include Margin Call (2011), Too Big to Fail (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Big Short (2015), and now Money Monster, which moves the nascent genre into its adolescent, formulaic phase.
Directed by two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster—whose most recent behind-the-camera credits include episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black—Money Monster (in theaters on May 13) presents a familiar antihero in Lee Gates (George Clooney), a bombastic Jim Cramer-esque television host. The self-proclaimed wizard of Wall Street, he’s a mouthpiece who influences the market with smug claims that certain stocks are “safer than a savings account.” But when one of Gates’s sure things, Ibis Clear Capital, bottoms out overnight, losing $800 million because of what’s dubiously described as a “computer glitch,” Gates is taken hostage on-air by 24-year-old deliveryman Kyle Budwell (British actor Jack O’Connell, chewing on a Brooklyn accent here to mixed effect). Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), Gates’s longtime producer, becomes a de facto crisis negotiator, keeping Gates engaged with Budwell, who’s lost his life savings to the bum investment, while feverishly tracking Walt Camby (Dominic West), Ibis’s mysteriously absent chief executive officer.
As the noose tightens on Gates and the crooked Camby, Money Monster manages to squeeze out a bit of gallows humor: At one point, the TV host appeals to his audience to buy Ibis shares in an attempt to reverse the damage and save him (“What’s a life worth to you?” he pleads, staring into the camera). On cue, the stock price springs to life—ticking in the wrong direction. In one standard movie gambit, the New York City Police Department patches Budwell’s pregnant girlfriend through to the broadcast to persuade him to surrender; she instead reveals that he cries during sex and should probably do everyone a favor and just kill himself.
Like The Big Short, Money Monster occasionally veers deep into the weeds of financial jargon—quantitative analytics, dark pools, high-frequency trading—but the filmmakers wisely opt to embrace the broad audience appeal of a frenetic conspiracy thriller, beginning under the hot lights of a claustrophobic TV studio, spilling onto the streets of Manhattan’s Financial District, and culminating in a high-stakes confrontation between Budwell and Camby. Reminiscent of the sympathetic hostage takers played by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and Denzel Washington in John Q, Budwell lives out many a Bernie supporter’s revenge fantasy against a rigged system. As the character reminds his captives, “I might be the one with the gun here, but I’m not the real criminal.”
Studios will gladly wring the financial corruption sponge as they have with biblical floods and fire raining from the sky, tweaking the details as necessary. (Consider this summer’s Equity, starring Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, which has been described as the first “female-driven” film about Wall Street.) “They like how the math adds up, so they gotta keep rewriting the equation,” Budwell says of the big banks’ anything-goes manner of keeping the odds and dollar signs forever in their favor. Count Hollywood in. Greed is good, after all. We learned that at the movies.