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Jodie Foster finds her inner Lumet with ‘Money Monster’

Here are a couple of things that “Money Monster” most definitely is NOT:

1. The cliched, TV-style hostage drama that it seems to be in the TV ads. Any reluctance to show this film to large squadrons of critics was foolish. The TV ads are efficient at selling its star value but bad at conveying all the things that make it as good as it is.

2. A movie anywhere near the level of Sidney Lumet’s masterpieces “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon” even though it’s faintly – and nicely – reminiscent of both. On the other hand, it is mildly spectacular news that at this particular stage of her directing career (which began with the typically sensitive little drama “Little Man Tate”), Jodie Foster has jumped with both feet into the Lumet business.

Nor is that all the good news: She’s done a much better job of that than Spike Lee did when he directed Foster in the hostage drama “Inside Man.”

“Money Monster” is a much better film than Lee’s. It is wickedly well-directed for a film that takes a cliche you can practically watch weekly on a TV dramatic series – the hostage drama, complete with SWAT teams, trigger fingers attached to suicide vests and by-the-book cop negotiators – and packs it full of angry and funny topicality.

The hostage taken is the “Money Monster” of the title, a bloviating cable-TV buffoon in the Jim Cramer “Mad Money” style, only more so. He’s a fellow who turns a stock tip show into a weekly cable TV circus.

His name is Lee Gates and he’s played by George Clooney, who co-produced and is having a wonderful time indulging his actor self at every turn, while he’s being directed by one of the smartest fellow actors he has and is occupying half of the movie’s camera space while his pal Julia Roberts occupies the other half.

There’s a fourth major player in this tense, darkly comic thriller – Jack O’Connell as an outraged investor who lost his $60,000 life savings (his late mother’s life insurance payout) by plunking it all down on a stock the “money monster” had recommended at the top of his lungs. He’s the one who bursts into the studio, holds an automatic to Gates’ head, forces him to wear an armed vest and informs him that if his thumb, for a second, slips off the trigger in his hand, everyone in the studio will be toothpicks and ashes.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. What else is new? A tense but by the book tick-tock thriller while the principals get to talk a lot to and at each other while the stress level steadily climbs onscreen and in the audience.

What IS new, is the quality of the talk that is sometimes very funny and reasonably often makes satiric sideswipes at the TV business – as when the loyal cameraman, in the middle of all this frantic life and death shouting, asks the crazy young “perp” with the automatic and the bomb trigger to move a little bit so he can get him in a better light.

What is appallingly easy to do with “Money Monster” is take for granted the spectacular degree of Hollywood professionalism exhibited by the big shots in this movie. That is especially true of Foster, one of the finest actresses we’ve had since she was a child in “Napoleon and Samantha” (I’ve never heard her utter a line I didn’t believe) who has now, surprisingly and with exciting panache, turned into a near-virtuosic director in the great, urban Lumet style.

For Foster to get people like Clooney and Roberts into the Lumet business with her is big movie news at your local megaplex, the way I score these things. It’s exemplary professionalism.

The consummate Hollywood professionalism of this extends to its writers. One of those who gets both script and original story credit is Jim Kouf, the “Grimm” creator on TV who, back in another century, wrote the wisecrack-studded script for “Stakeout.” (When your lines have to be dribbled and bounced behind the back by Richard Dreyfuss, they’d better be worth it.)

What gives “Money Monster” a little extra juice is a lying, cheating hedge fund grandee (Dominic West) whose algorithm somehow loses $800 million one night, thereby sending the financial lives of his investors down the tubes.

“A glitch” in the algorithm is what’s claimed. Hooey is what everyone suspects. So the frantic, wiped-out investor holds the TV money big-mouth at gunpoint in an explosive vest with specific instructions to find out, for him and everyone else, what the devil actually happened to his and everyone else’s money.

Which Clooney and his director Patti (Roberts) proceed to do, literally under the gun and like the professionals that they are, just as the performers playing them are using all of their professional horsepower to put over this hugely entertaining thriller.

It’s not “Dog Day Afternoon.” But the suspense is, at times, quite acute. It’s not “Network” either, though the satire is pretty good.

It’s a movie where two of America’s biggest stars got together to prove that a star actress on their level of renown is also now one of the more accomplished actor/directors we have. And in a whole different way than she was before.

If the reception for this film has been weirdly – and unfairly – subdued thus far, it’s because too many people are taking for granted just how wonderful engaging Hollywood professionalism can be while barely even breaking a sweat.

3 1/2 stars (Out of four) Starring George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Giancarlo Esposito. Directed by Jodie Foster. 98 minutes. Rated R for language, some sex and violence.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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