Quick Answer: Academy Award-winning actor-turned-director Jodie Foster’s Money Monster is a thriller that follows an exuberant financial pundit (George Clooney) who is held hostage on-air during his own stock tip television show. Foster says that Money Monster is not based on Jim Cramer’s CNBC show Mad Money, but the similarities between the shows are hard to ignore. Money Monster centers around a program like Mad Money in order to explore some of the larger issues with modern capitalism, from the contradictions of infotainment to the abstract language used by financial advisors.
Jodie Foster’s latest film, Money Monster (2016), fits into the financial thriller genre that has experienced a revival in the wake of the 2008 recession, joining the ranks of Margin Call (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Big Short (2015). The film follows boisterous TV personality Lee Gates (George Clooney) in real time, as he hosts an episode of his flashy stock tip show, Money Monster. But it's not a normal day on the show. After a stock that Gates guaranteed was a “sure thing” plummets overnight — due to an apparent “glitch” in the “trading algorithm” — a viewer who lost his life savings (Jack O’Connell) shows up at the studio and holds Gates hostage on live TV.
George Clooney (Lee Gates) and Jack O'Connell (Kyle Budwell) in Money Monster (2016)
Money Monster explores the intersection of Wall Street capitalism and the media, illustrating the danger of programs that are presented as journalism but are nothing more than unreliable entertainment. While Jodie Foster says that Money Monster is not based on Jim Cramer’s real-life CNBC show Mad Money, there are several undeniable parallels, from the shows’ buzzers and tawdry graphics to the respective hosts’ sensationalist language and inflated influence on how their non-expert viewers invest.
In terms of ridiculousness, Lee Gates’ Money Monster seems a slightly exaggerated version of Jim Cramer’s Mad Money. Both shows feature stock tickers at the bottom of the screen that look like those used for breaking news, giving the programs an air of authority, as if each is the go-to-source for capitalist news. Gates and Cramer are also similarly animated hosts: they yell, hit buzzers for cheesy sound effects and cue meme-like graphics to maintain high energy while discussing stocks, a topic that might elicit yawns in other arenas.
Jim Cramer on CNBC's Mad Money
Gates and Cramer’s rhetoric feels like a cross between a sports commentator and a persistent salesperson on QVC. They speak about investing like it’s one big sports game, amping up viewers to be courageous and get more points. On Cramer’s desk, a book titled GET RICH is propped up, and hanging in the background is a customized Philadelphia Eagles jersey that reads “MAD MONEY.” He opens the show by saying, “My mission is simple: TO MAKE YOU MONEY!”
Gates, on the other hand, opens Money Monster with a choreographed hip-hop dance, wearing a golden top hat and dollar sign patterned vest. He offers a “Can’t Miss Stock Tip of the Millenium” every show — the kind of segment that mimics weekly sports highlights or ESPN’s Coors Light Cold Hard Facts. Like Gates’ producer Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) says at the beginning of the film, “We don’t do gotcha journalism here. We don’t do journalism at all.” But the problem with these shows, which epitomize infotainment, is that they air on news networks which are inherently perceived as authoritative and journalistic. It's also inaccurate to metaphorize investment into a sports game, as the consequences of buying a bad stock are much worse than those of missing a basket.
George Clooney (Lee Gates) with his backup dancers in Money Monster (2016)
Jodie Foster and the writers behind Money Monster (Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf) are not the first to criticize Cramer for dressing entertainment in journalism’s clothing. Moreover, a major plot element of the film seems pulled from something that happened on Mad Money in real life. In Money Monster, Gates is held hostage on-air because a stock that he told viewers was “safer than a savings account” — Ibis Clear Capital — mysteriously lost $800 million overnight. This recalls an episode of Mad Money from March 2008, in which Cramer encouraged viewers to buy stock in Bear Stearns just days before its value dropped by 92%. “Don’t move your money from Bear,” he said on-air. This led to months of backlash from critics and viewers alike, as well as the famous 2009 interview with Jon Stewart that would become known as “The Cramer Takedown.” Stewart condemned Cramer for telling viewers to buy stock in Bear Stearns and for CNBC’s prioritizing entertainment value over journalistic truth. “I’m a guy trying to do an entertaining show about business for people to watch,” Cramer said. Stewart responded, “So maybe we could remove the ‘financial expert’ and [the slogan] ‘In Cramer We Trust…and start getting back to the fundamentals on the reporting.”
Julia Roberts (Patty Fenn) and George Clooney (Lee Gates) in Money Monster
Of course, the real life Cramer stock miscalculation did not spark a hostage situation or a mystery to determine what happened to the catastrophically plummeted stock. Money Monster is a financial thriller whose goal is not just to parody a capitalist self-help sports program but also to use it as a platform to explore larger problems in our modern society: the confusion of entertainment and journalism in the media; the danger in valuing people based on their bank accounts; the distance technology puts between people and tragedy; and the knowledge gap between bankers and everyday investors. Money Monster seeks to demonstrate how, through abstract language and false promises from "experts" like Cramer, Wall Street has made it nearly impossible for regular people to understand what’s going on with their money.
Still, by the end of the film, viewers are pulled in so many different directions that any larger, unified message is muddled. In the third act — Gates' and the gunman’s dramatic walk through New York City's Financial District to confront Ibis’ CEO (Dominic West) — Money Monster looks much like the sensationalist entertainment that it set out to criticize.