Sidney Lumet would like Money Monster quite a bit.

There was a tradition of filmmaking that seems to be on the wane these days that involved wrapping a social issue or a social injustice and wrapping it in a nice juicy dramatic situation. When done perfectly, you get 12 Angry Men or Dog Day Afternoon or Network. Lumet was so good at both understanding exactly how to frame the moral argument and knowing how to play the entertainment, and it’s a bit of a lost art now. I’ve always felt like the inelegant version of this particular type of storytelling was embodied by Stanley Kramer, who tilted more towards the message end of the equation. It’s a tough thing to get right, and Jodie Foster deserves credit for orchestrating things with a nimble wit and a relentless energy.

Ultimately, you probably know where the screenplay credited to Jamie Linden and Alan DiFiore & Jim Kouf is going after the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie. Hell, you probably know where it’s going after you see the trailer for the film. I wasn’t particularly surprised by the film, but what makes it work is the casting and the way Foster keeps things moving from the very start. Casting George Clooney as Lee Gates, the host of a Jim Kramer-like cable TV show, is pretty much the only option Foster had if she wanted the film to be remotely palatable. Gates is a pretty serious scumbag at the start of the film, and I’m not sure I care about watching the moral awakening of a guy this rotten. Clooney manages to make him just appealing enough to keep you invested, and that's a testament to his charm and his understanding of a certain type of male ego. That evolution happens at the hands of Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a young man who lost everything on a stock tip that Lee shared with his audience. While the company explains the disastrous loss of money as a “computer glitch,” Kyle can’t accept that. He wants a human name that he can blame. He wants someone to be responsible for what happened. When he wanders onto Lee’s set with a loaded gun and an explosive vest that he puts onto the celebrity host, he immediately becomes one of those media moments where people watch out of a combination of morbid interest and moral outrage.

It’s a fairly intimate film. Most of the movie unfolds between Kyle and Lee, with Lee’s producer Patty (Julia Roberts) in the studio control room and in Lee’s ear. Foster’s good about cutting to reactions around the world as the story unfolds, using those moments to punctuate but never really undoing the tension that she’s building in the studio. There is a larger conspiracy at play, and Kyle and Lee sort of miraculously are able to unravel things through sheer brute force, and if realism is strictly important to you, you’ll probably bail out at some point. For this kind of film to work, though, this big gesture has to have some sort of larger payoff. It can’t just be an angry dude with a gun taking over a TV studio, and the real purpose of the film becomes clear as it addresses the shell game that most modern global financing is. The film is all about pushing that button and it does it ably enough. If you’re not upset by the way the modern financial system feeds on class differences, you probably benefit from it. Otherwise, it’s a pretty easy thing to get upset about, and the film makes its big broad points.

This kind of movie doesn’t really lend itself to nuanced discussions of complicated issues. You need something that is as immediately graspable as this to build a film like this around, because you need to start winning the audience over to Kyle’s position immediately. He’s a guy with a gun, after all, which is nearly indefensible in real life. At this point, we’ve seen too many examples of what happens when disgruntled men with guns show up in public places, and it’s rarely driven by a righteous moral fury that neatly works out with the gunman’s overall innocence. When you set up a scumbag like Dominic West’s character in this film, it makes it very, very easy to side with Kyle. He’s right. That gun? That’s just him going a little bit too far. He never really does anything with it, right? Again… that’s a convenience of movies, and you have to just accept that he’s a good guy who makes one bad choice.

Foster is helped enormously by Matthew Libatique, her cinematographer here, and he does the same sort of energetic, slick commercial work here that he did in Spike Lee’s Inside Man, and he does a nice job of maximizing the very minimal time the crew had to shoot the real New York for the film. It’s amazing how much the movie feels anchored to the city considering much of it was shot elsewhere. That’s just one way the films of the ‘70s had an advantage on films now. They were able to shoot in a city like New York and capture something much more raw and real simply because it was a different process altogether. They were also able to play more with our ideas about who we would or wouldn’t empathize with as a lead. Still, this sounds like I’m beating up Money Monster for all the things it can’t be, but there are plenty of things it does well. I think Clooney and O’Connell have a strong rapport, and it means that they are very good at attacking these scenes together. There’s a great sense of give and take between them. There’s also a really lovely connection that you can read in the relationship between Clooney and Roberts. They’ve worked together enough times that they have this very natural comic rhythm they drop into, and Foster takes full advantage of that.

More than anything, it’s just nice to see Foster is still able to get a studio to pony up for an adult-driven drama that is interested in issues or ideas, no matter how light their actual engagement with those ideas. It’s a solid effort from a filmmaker who always brings an active intelligence to the films she makes, and a perfect example of the kind of film that seems to be more and more important to Clooney as both producer and actor, especially as he gets older. Money Monster may not be great, but I wish Hollywood made more films like it.

Money Monster is in theaters now.
I’ll have my interview with Jodie Foster later this week.

A respected critic and commentator for fifteen years, Drew McWeeny helped create the online film community as "Moriarty" at Ain't It Cool News, and now proudly leads two budding Film Nerds in their ongoing movie education.