Stocks and bombs

Taking some measure of inspiration from such ‘70s classics as Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976) and The China Syndrome (1979) – as well as such later, more high-concept efforts as Costa- Gavras’ Mad City (1995) and Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) – Money Machine aspires to be both message movie and crowd-pleaser.

The film, directed by Jodie Foster–who appeared in Inside Man, coincidentally –is not without relevance but also not without (convenient) contrivance. The issues of media manipulation and corporate chicanery are addressed here, with some occasionally misplaced humor thrown into the mix. Yet even when credibility is stretched, Money Machine is always watchable and often entertaining.

It’s easy to see what drew George Clooney to the project, both as star and producer. Not only does he get to yuck it up as Lee Gates, a fast-talking cable-TV financial analyst who often dispenses advice and opinion with a hip-hop beat, he also gets to shift into dramatic mode when disaster strikes.

That disaster comes in the form of Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), a desperate man who storms a live broadcast of Lee’s show and forces him at gunpoint to don a vest filled with explosives. With the cameras rolling, Kyle reveals that he has lost his entire savings thanks to a “glitch” that erased some $800 million from the coffers of IBIS Global Capital, a company that Lee promoted and is run by CEO Walt Camby. That Dominic West, at his oiliest and most slippery, plays Camby immediately pegs him as the film’s true heavy.

Amidst the panic and confusion, further compounded by the inevitable arrival of New York’s Finest (led by Giancarlo Esposito, doing a lot with a little), Lee and director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) are cognizant enough to realize that they’re covering the story of a lifetime – literally. The incident awakens their journalistic instincts, which is not a bad thing.

The entire story takes place over only a few hours, and pacing the film essentially in real time lends it some urgency, but for all its topicality there’s a certain shallowness to Money Machine. We learn little about the characters beyond what we see or what they say. Kyle, whom the British-born O’Connell gives a thick “Noo Yawk” accent, repeatedly says he’s not stupid – yet his actions just as repeatedly contradict this assertion. There’s also the repeated tendency to sermonize about the situation at hand in the film’s screenplay by Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden.

The persuasive cast, however, is a major compensation, with Roberts especially good as the long-suffering but loyal Patty and Catriona Balfe as Camby’s equally long-suffering public-relations representative, whose loyalty begins to waver. Emily Meade, Lenny Venito, Dennis Boutsikaris and Christopher Denham also make their mark in support. !