Directed by Jodie Foster

Written by Jamie Linden, Alan Di Fiore and Jim Kouf

Rated M, 99 minutes

So who or what is the monster? George Clooney is the obvious candidate: his character, Lee Gates, is the wildly successful and rich compere of a New York TV show about money. He wears Uncle Sam hats and hams it up with dancers at the top of the show, before dispensing advice without fear or favour, or it seems, care.

He’s one kind of monster – a media monster. Another might be his pal Walt Camby (Dominic West) whose company IBIS Clear Capital announces that a computer ‘glitch’ has caused an overnight loss of $800 million. No biggie, happens all the time, except that Lee Gates recommended buying its shares.

A man who lost his $60,000 in savings is now mad as hell. Kyle Bidwell (Jack O’Connell) slips into the studio as Gates goes on air. With millions of people watching, he holds a gun to Gates’s head. Live on air could soon be dead on air. In the control booth, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), his long-suffering producer, tries to figure out how not to get her boss killed. Going off air would be the quick way, so they stay live, as people around the world tune in.

Now we have three monsters lined up, all men. One with a grievance and a gun, two who don’t care about the little guy but soon will. Actually only Gates cares. Walt Camby’s plane is in the air and nobody can contact him, according to his PR executive, Diane Lester (Caitriona Balfe).

The first wheel falls off this story right there, because it’s not hard to contact an aeroplane nowadays, unless the pilot turns off his radio. More wheels fall off as we go. The main reason is a ricketty story structure.  Thrillers, even smart ones, have to convince us that what is happening is organic, a living thing that could go any number of ways. The most basic error is to force a story where it doesn’t want to go, to make a point. That’s what Jodie Foster, directing her fourth movie, does here.

She’s interested in the ideas – a good thing – and at that level, Money Monster is engaging and current and caustic. It tears a few strips off Wall Street, before ripping into modern media. That’s why George Clooney took the role: he is passionate about this issue, partly because he’s the son of a newsman. That’s why he made Good Night, and Good Luck, the best work he has done as a director. Cooney believes the American media is failing in its job, losing its integrity, betraying its supporters. Lee Gates turns potentially ruinous advice which needs sober handling into infotainment. He’s about to pay the price, with this updated inversion of The King of Comedy, Scorsese’s 1983 thriller about media and fame.

Foster’s other desire is to rework a story in a loosely feminist way – something she has always been good at, as an actor. Julie Roberts becomes the key character in this drama, trying to resolve the tensions between these three money-driven men. She’s the preserver, the life-saver, trying to find out the truth about the missing $800 million without upsetting the man with the gun. The valorisation puts too much strain on the role. 

Money Monster works better as comedy than thriller – but that’s not all it wants to be. The third act has too many holes to sustain belief, and Foster knows it. She tries to hold it together with action and pace, rather than story logic. The acting is not to blame: with this cast, we get nothing but strong performances. It’s more a question of conviction: I don’t think Foster really feels this movie in her bones. She has acknowledged a great debt to the kinds of taut political thriller that Sidney Lumet used to make, but she’s not really a political film-maker.  This one’s a job, and no serious director does his or her best work that way.