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Money Monster shows Hollywood has forgotten how to make movies about the working class

This is a slick piece of work, but ultimately a hollow one.

Money Monster
Yes, George Clooney dances.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Money Monster, the satirical thriller about the financial industry and the TV business news channels that support it, is a slick piece of work. But like many slick pieces of work, it's ultimately hollow.

George Clooney
is his usual classy self, but in a role that attempts to suggest his character is a bit of an empty suit (a character Clooney plays exceptionally well). Julia Roberts is as good as she's been in years. The cast is packed with cable TV all-stars, including the leads of The Affair and Outlander.

And the film is exciting to look at, too. Director Jodie Foster and cinematographer Matthew Libatique find new ways to shoot the claustrophobic confines of a TV set, using the monitors present on the soundstage as a way to reveal parts of said soundstage we normally wouldn't be able to see. (The result is roughly akin to looking at a cooperative video game with a four-way split screen.)

Even the script is propulsive. As written by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, and Jim Kouf (from a story by DiFiore and Kouf), Money Monster uses its 98 minutes of running time fairly well. There isn't a spare moment, a wasted detail. Everything comes together in the end, to create a picture of Wall Street greed run amok.

However, for as much as I enjoyed watching Money Monster in the moment, the more I think about it, the more hollow it feels. And there's a good reason for this: Hollywood has stopped knowing how to tell stories about the lower classes.

Money Monster is composed of too-familiar elements

Money Monster
You've seen George Clooney and Julia Roberts play these sorts of characters before.

Clooney's character, Lee Gates, is the center of Money Monster, but only in a loose sense. He's the host of a TV-show-within-the-movie, also called Money Monster, on which he doles out stock tips in cartoonish fashion. He's clearly inspired by Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC's Mad Money who clashed memorably with Jon Stewart.

You can see where the character's arc is headed the second you hear that description — the man without a soul is going to acquire one, through extraordinary circumstances. This is a role Clooney has played many times before, often memorably. (For my money, his finest riff on it was Up in the Air.)

Of course, Lee's going to need a little shove to embark on his journey toward enlightenment. And that shove arrives in the form of a mysterious man who pops up on his Money Monster set while he's broadcasting live.

The man, whose name is Kyle (he's played by Jack O'Connell, an up-and-coming actor Hollywood seems very excited about), pulls out a gun. He forces Lee to put on a bomb vest. He screams about the $60,000 inheritance he lost, thanks to an investment fund that Lee has reportedly touted on the show, which blames a computer glitch. That $60,000 was everything he had. And now he wants answers.

Would you believe that Lee goes from being afraid of this guy to trying to help him get the answers he wants? (Yeah, you probably figured that out already.)

As presented by Foster, the film is always bracing — though at times it's also disorienting, as when Kyle shows up with barely any introduction about 10 minutes in. But her aforementioned use of those monitors allows for several neat visual tricks, and she's got a fine sense of when to highlight the story's inherent satire. For instance, at one point Lee's director, Patty (Roberts), asks a cameraman to pivot so he can catch the mystery man in better light, even as he's threatening to kill everybody.

There's a lot of fun to be had with the intersection between the media and high finance, and with how the 24-hour news cycle turns even matters of life and death into entertainment. Money Monster hits both of those beats, occasionally admirably. But it can never escape the emptiness at its center.

This is ultimately a movie about the wrong people

Money Monster
Kyle should be more important to the film than he ultimately is.

All you need to know about what's wrong with Money Monster is in how little it cares about Kyle — the guy who's actually driving the action. First, it concentrates on Lee. After that, it's probably most interested in Patty. And after her, it chooses to focus on the people working at the fund that lost those hundreds of millions of dollars.

Only then does it really get to the guy with the gun, the guy who had his life savings wiped out in that crash. (You might keep expecting him to reveal deeper motivations for his actions. He doesn't, really.)

In the end, Money Monster attempts to indict capitalism as a whole, but that aim feels too little, too late. The bad things that happen in the movie are mostly because of one incredibly rich man, who sits out most of the film and is really skillful at duping everyone from TV hosts to co-workers. If the film is trying to launch a broadside against capitalism, you'd expect it to do more than suggest there's nothing wrong that couldn't be cleared up by tossing out a few rotten apples.

As such, Kyle's quest ends up making him feel less like a character and more like a plot catalyst. His purpose isn't to teach us about what it's like to struggle to make ends meet in America; it's to make Lee realize he's abandoned what should be his central journalistic quest of helping expose the truth in favor of easy talking points. And that's fine. That's a story worth telling, but it's a story Hollywood tells much more often than the story of someone who has so little that desperation becomes the only play.

Every time Money Monster's characters look into Kyle's background, it feels like economic tourism. The movie's most memorable moment — when his girlfriend appears on one of those many monitors in an attempt to talk sense into him — ends up feeling like a simulacrum of how working-class people might talk to each other, garnered from a steady diet of Honeymooners reruns and Born Loser comic strips.

It wasn't always this way. Hollywood used to excel at telling stories of people who lived and worked in the lower classes, who were earnestly hoping to rise up the class ladder. Sometimes the characters succeeded, in more aspirational tales. Sometimes the characters failed, when moviemakers' mood turned toward the sour and cynical. But whether it was The Grapes of Wrath or Raging Bull, filmmakers used to treat the concerns and hopes of the working class as worthy of consideration.

That happens less and less now. When the working class enters this story, it's literally as an inconvenient intrusion, and it's only there, ultimately, to help prop up the idea that our economic system is fundamentally sound. In the end, everybody in Money Monster — whether rich guy empty suit or police officer — is there to make sure the essential wheels of capitalism keep on rolling, maybe with that one bad guy sent off to jail.

And, again, there's nothing wrong with that. Making an argument in favor of the system can result in great art, just like making a film that's of the system but clearly conflicted by that fact can result in great art — as was the case with 2015's The Big Short. But Money Monster clearly believes it will inspire moviegoers to critically consider the sins of Wall Street, when it mostly just suggests that everything's fine.

Money Monster is playing throughout the country.

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