The PEOPLE Review: George Clooney Rings Up a Great Performance in Money Monster

In this satiric comedy-drama directed by Jodie Foster – it’s her fifth feature film – George Clooney plays Lee Gates, a Wall Street prophet of profit who hosts a Jim Cramer-like cable show. Lee talks a manic streak of highs and lows, winners and losers, buy-nows and sell-sooners, all syncopated to the nano-beat of computerized financial algorithms.

Fast-talking comedy isn’t always Clooney’s strong point – in his movies for the Coen Brothers, he has a rattling briskness that can seem forced – but here he’s deadpan smooth even as Lee plays around his set with props, video screens and backup dancers. He’s like a carnival barker luring people into a freak-show tent.

Lee’s problem is that a volatile market can produce some freaky consequences. Lee is taken hostage on-air by Kyle (Jack O’Connell), a desperate viewer who followed Lee’s tip and bet all he had on a high-flying, now-crashing investment firm called Clear Capital. Kyle’s money is gone, along with an estimated $800 million that vanished from Clear Capital, but where, then, did it all go? The cruelly casual explanation is that this is all just what’s known as a black swan. That refers not to Natalie Portman losing her marbles on pointe but to some cataclysmic but inexplicable anomaly – in short, a glitch. Kyle, who’s a sap but not a dummy, isn’t buying it. In short order, no one else is, either, not Lee, not his hard-working producer (Julia Roberts), who’s trying to resolve this crisis from the control booth, not even Clear Capital’s chief corporate spokeswoman (Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe, looking gorgeous in a long, light winter coat) the likes of which haven’t been seen since Diane Keaton in Baby Boom.

WATCH: What is George Clooney And Julia Roberts’ Chemistry Like?

Where, after all, is Capital’s big daddy, Walt Camby? Why is he aloft in his jet at this moment of crisis? And should we be worried that he’s played by The Affair’s Dominic West, whose open, ruggedly handsome face is so good at suggesting someone and something much less trustworthy just below the surface?

Director Foster skillfully widens the scope of this tense situation without losing suspense (or, just as importantly, humor). The problem is that Money Monster, which at times evokes both The King of Comedy and Network, doesn’t push hard enough to keep its focus on the abstract, systemic problem that sets the movie in motion–a financial market that, even in a boom (or, as the case is these days, not), seems perilously close to being a bubble ready to pop.

Money Monster ultimately is more about personal decency than markets. Well, okay. But in that case it could have been about anything. You can shoot a movie about a man who steals from his son’s piggy bank and call that Money Monster, too.

The acting, at any rate, is uniformly good. Clooney’s performance belongs with his best (Michael Clayton, Up in the Air): He’s unequaled at playing powerful men brought up short by the realization that they’re just empty suits. And his smart, casual chemistry with Roberts is still on the money.

(May 13, rated R)

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