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Review: George Clooney and Julia Roberts get mauled by ‘Money Monster’

“Money Monster”
George Clooney, center, stars with Giancarlo Esposito, left, in TriStar Pictures’ “Money Monster.”
(Atsushi Nishijima / TriStar Pictures)

The names are big — George Clooney, Julia Roberts, director Jodie Foster — but the results are meager in “Money Monster,” a film that is both less entertaining and less significant than it imagines.

An attempt at combining a real-time thriller with a shot across the bow to a deceptive financial system, “Money Monster” never achieves plausibility, settling instead for cliched situations and uninteresting characters masquerading as contemporary relevance.

As written by Jamie Linden and Alan DiFiore & Jim Kouf, “Money Monster” primarily takes place in a Manhattan TV studio’s set and control room. That, along with an “I’m fed up and I’m not going to take it anymore” theme, give it a distant echo of Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network,” but the resemblance never manages to be more than skin deep.

The TV show in question is called “Lee Gates Presents Money Monster” and features the titular Gates (gamely played by Clooney) singing, dancing, mugging in funny hats and periodically dispensing financial advice to the multitudes under shticky rubrics like “Can’t Miss Stock Tip of the Millennium.”

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Gates, we’re meant to understand, is as much entertainer as advisor, an empty vessel who oozes misplaced self-confidence and counts on his fast-disappearing charm to get by.

Keeping Gates on the straight and narrow as much as possible is his inevitably long-suffering producer, Patty Fenn (Roberts, not at her best), the calm center of any storm who gets to explain to a nervous guest, “We don’t do gotcha journalism, we don’t do journalism at all.”

Gates starts this particular day with a bit of news. A hot firm called Ibis Clear Capital, which Gates has been touting as the biggest thing since sliced bread, just announced that a “glitch” in its high-frequency trading algorithm caused $800 million of its money to disappear.

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A bit unnerved, Gates would like Ibis CEO Walt Camby (“The Wire’s” Dominic West) to appear on the show to explain, but he can’t be reached and company flack Diane Lester (an effective Caitriona Balfe of TV’s “Outlander”) is recruited instead.

This is where things get both more complicated and less believable. Wandering onto the set while the show is being broadcast (studio security apparently not being what it used to be) comes intruder Kyle Budwell (“Unbroken’s” Jack O’Connell), an ordinary guy from the outer boroughs who is, well, fed up and not going to take it anymore.

Brandishing a weapon and forcing Gates to don a vest filled with high explosives, Budwell turns out to be irate because he lost his life savings when he listened to Gates’ Ibis tip. “The system is rigged,” he shouts, sounding like a Donald Trump supporter in the making. “They’re stealing the country out from under us.”

With producer Fenn whispering calm instructions into Gates’ earpiece, the host tries his usual “I’m not the real criminal” routine, but Budwell is not buying it, demanding that CEO Camby show up to explain where his money went and threatening widespread death and destruction on live TV while refusing to take no for answer.

All this may sound plausible in theory but in practice there are several difficulties, starting with O’Connell’s performance, which is as uncertain as his trying-too-hard New York accent. Brilliantly convincing in British films like “Starred Up” and “’71,” he has difficulty finding his footing here, likely because the film he’s in has the same difficulty. For having a unified and convincing tone, as those who retain bleak memories of 2011’s “Beaver” can attest, is not something Foster considers important in a director.

“Money Monster” is all over the map, mixing earnest contemporary relevance, black comedy, bogus emotion and tragedy with its nominal thriller plot, all to frankly bewildering effect. A film to bet on this definitely is not.

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