Money Monster
Directed by Jodie Foster 
Screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore, Jim Kouf 
Produced by TriStar Pictures 
Distributed by Sony Pictures 

Directed and written by Deniz Gamze Ergüven 
Produced by CG Cinema 
Distributed by Cohen Media Group

When I graduated from college with a degree in English literature, it occurred to me I had to do something to secure my financial future.  So I attended a seminar in investment strategies.  Most of what I learned at that seminar I forgot in a few weeks, but one thing has stayed with me.  After giving an overview of stock-market practices, the instructor was asked a practical question: How does an investor distinguish a good investment opportunity from a bad one?  The instructor smiled sagely.  “Watch the crowd.  Find out where they’re putting their money, and then make your move in the opposite direction.”  Forty-five years later, the wisdom of this advice made itself abundantly clear.  In the run-up to the market collapse of 2008, the lemmings had been rushing willy-nilly into mortgage-backed securities and real estate.  They lost big time.  The contrarian foxes, on the other hand, made their bets selectively in a wide variety of well-vetted stocks and bonds.  Although they weren’t wheeling their winnings away in barrows, they weren’t losing their suspenders either.

Why do so many investors continue to make the same mistake over and over, shoveling their earnings into investments favored by the crowd?  The answer is not difficult to discover: Crowds beget trust.  As Cole Porter asked rhetorically two years before 1929, “Can 50 million Frenchmen be wrong?”  Answer: Decidedly yes, and so can their American cousins, as Jodie Foster’s Money Monster wants to illustrate.

The monster of the film’s title doesn’t refer to a Godzilla-like beast.  It’s the name of a television advice show transparently based on CNBC’s unaccountably popular Mad Money, hosted by the snarlingly arrogant Jim Cramer.  George Clooney plays Lee Gates, the film’s unlikely version of Cramer.  Like his prototype, Gates has made a highly profitable career braying his supposed investment expertise to his gullible audience.  He continually boasts of his uncanny ability to pick winning stocks, despite the fact that his results are little better than if he were blindfolded and throwing darts at a stock ticker.  You would think that such an unflattering portrait would invite a lawsuit from Cramer.  But there’s been no legal action yet.  It may be that the gnarly, pint-sized Cramer has been struck dumb for once after seeing himself.

Money Monster asks this all too plausible question: What if a vindictive investor, misled by careless advice, snuck onto the program’s set while the show was in progress?  What if he brandished a .38 and forced the smug host into a suicide vest?  The wonder is that it hasn’t happened already.  Indeed, if this film meets with success, as I’m sure it will, there may be no lack of disgruntled souls cabbing it to CNBC’s midtown Manhattan studio, pistols in hand.  I’m sure security has already been alerted.

Suspenseful?  To a degree, yes.  But the anxiety index is quickly dampened by the certain knowledge that Gates, misleader-in-chief though he be, will not pay the piper when the time comes.  How could he?  He’s played by Clooney and abetted by the eternally cute Julia Roberts, who, improbably enough, plays the brains behind his show.  And don’t expect a plausible account of financial skullduggery.  Perhaps in an effort to maintain clarity, the writers have boiled America’s financial crisis down to the greed of a single CEO.  If only.

Foster’s film wants to be a “serious” analysis of Wall Street’s malfeasance.  It’s not that at all.  Instead, the film is a reasonably good piece of mass entertainment with which to while away a couple of hours.  Clooney does what he does best: As Gates, he plays a fast-talking lightweight who pretends to know what’s going on, but is really just a clueless shill for higher ups.  (It’s an act he’s played in the political arena also, but with considerably less success.)  When challenged about his spurious stock picks, Gates is dumbfounded that anyone would feel betrayed.  “Come, on,” he replies, “it’s only television.”  But he misses the point, as I suspect the writers may have also.  Television, radio, and other mass media generally have capitalized on the public’s trust.  Even today, most people, it seems, assume that the media comprise a semiofficial extension of the government, and that the government has a vested interest in maintaining the media’s trustworthiness.  Ergo, the media won’t lie to us—not too much, anyway.  After all, our officials want desperately to retain the right to raise taxes and declare war.  They can’t risk invalidating themselves in the public eye.  That might foster rebellion, or at least widespread noncompliance with official policy.  Isn’t this the reasoning that undergirds the too-big-to-fail meme we were fed just a few years ago?  National security depends in large part on the believability of our officialdom, both in the halls of government and on the six o’clock news.

Of course, the trust television is at pains to nurture has been wantonly abused from the medium’s earliest days.  I’m old enough to recall hucksters in the 50’s hawking dubious products on television.  In between scenes of a drama or movie, official-looking men in garb suited for hospitals or law courts would appear on sets contrived to resemble those of the supposedly unimpeachable news studios.  They were there to sell hair-replacement tonics, vitamin regenerators, and fat-reducing supplements, all guaranteed to improve your life immeasurably.  Today’s advice shows are really the same thing.  This is, or should be, the film’s real gravamen.  Despite all the lying for commercial and political gain that streams into our homes daily, we nevertheless want to believe the game’s not entirely rigged, that there are honest watchdogs defending us from the predators.  This, in part, is what has made Donald Trump so appealing to average citizens and such a headache to the behind-the-scenes manipulators.  Trump doesn’t go along with the lying.  Or, at least, he doesn’t seem to.

Money Monster begins with Gates bursting confidently onto his program’s set wearing a green top hat as he dances with two black showgirls.  (Representatives of his target audience, perhaps?  Like Jesse Jackson, he’s keeping hope alive.)  He chants in a mocking lilt, “Without risk, there is no reward.  Should I sell?  Should I hold?  Get some balls!”  Very amusing, but not to Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connor), a young janitor living with his pregnant wife in a modest two-family home in Queens, New York’s lesser borough.  He recently put his life savings ($60,000) into a company Gates recommended as less risky than a savings bank.  Mysteriously, however, this sure bet has suddenly run upon the shoals, and Budwell’s investment has foundered.  No wonder he’s resorted to drastic measures.  Not having taken in the significance of the market’s standard caution—caveat emptor—he demands answers.  By the film’s conclusion he and we get an answer.  It’s so fatuous, however, that it undermines the film’s implicit claim to be a serious satire of capitalism.  Too bad.  There’s some real talent in this production, especially O’Connor, playing a working stiff desperate for a break.  You believe in him entirely.  He’s a jerk but a real one, and therefore what happens to him merits our attention.

Also deserving of our attention are the young ladies who are the subjects of Mustang, an extraordinary Turkish film made by first-time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who based her narrative on incidents in her own life.  The girls deserve our attention and, what’s more, our sympathy, for they are victims of an Islamic tradition that renders them wares to be sold in a bride market.

In a narrative that seems ironically indebted to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice done in a darker register, we meet five orphaned sisters ranging from 11 to 19 who live with their grandmother and uncle in a comfortable home in a northern seaside village in Turkey.  The girls are all quite pretty and charmingly vivacious.  We first see them walking home from school.  Along the way, they meet a group of boys and join them for some horseplay in the bay.  Fully dressed in their school uniforms, they sit on the boys’ shoulders and proceed to try to topple one another into the water.  What will seem unremarkable to most Western audiences will prove their undoing.  Gossip of their escapade precedes their arrival at home, where their grandmother awaits them angrily.  She gives them what-for, going so far as to accuse them of “pleasuring themselves” on the boys’ necks.  Did they?  Perhaps.  But if they did, there’s no reason to believe it was the original intention of their playfulness.  Besides, would it be such an offense?  Yes, it would for a Muslim girl for whom virginal appearance is everything.  It’s often a matter of life or death.  After all, these are folk who still expect to see a young husband produce his wife’s bloody sheet following their wedding night.

There’s an obvious remedy for the girls’ developing sexual interest, of course.  First, their uncle takes away their cellphones and computers, then bars their home’s windows, gates, and doors.  He intends to make the girls impenetrable to the outside world.  He then joins his mother in procuring suitable husbands for them.

OK, you think.  This is, after all, a traditional rural society with exacting mores to observe.  And while arranged marriages may seem unwarrantably oppressive to us, there have been quite a few studies that indicate partners in such unions are generally happier over time than those of their peers who have entered marriage romantically.

But it slowly becomes clear that the uncle’s interest in the girls is not solely protective.  This becomes all too horribly obvious when one of the girls (aged about 14) begins making gestures in front of her sisters that reveal her practical knowledge of the mechanics of sex.  This, at first, seems to be no more than crude adolescent joking, but it brings to the fore an earlier scene that, I confess, had slipped by me.  It’s one in which the youngest girl is puzzled to see her uncle standing just outside her sister’s half-opened bedroom door.  The older girl’s sexual joking, it turns out, has been her way of mocking her uncle for having made incestuous use of her.  Just as bad, it becomes apparent that their grandmother knew of this and did nothing to protect the girls.  Perhaps she thought it would have been un-Islamic to do so.  Once this surfaces, the film’s harrowing denouement ensues.

It’s not surprising that Ergüven chose to relocate to Paris after her film was released in Turkey.  Telling the truth about Islam is dangerous enough in Europe these days.  Displaying it in Recep Tayyip Erdo gan’s Turkey could be suicidal.