Sony / TriStar

Money Monster wants to be a film straight out of the ’70s, a snarling satire of media mores and capitalist villains, shot through with the profane fury of a Paddy Chayefsky script. At best, it’s a star vehicle from the late ’90s, a creakier, simpler tale of a hostage crisis at a facsimile of CNBC’s Mad Money, tied to the backs of two marquee idols—George Clooney and Julia Roberts. As its tense studio antics unfold, though, the sad truth becomes apparent: Money Monster is a movie-star vehicle that isn’t giving its movie stars anything to do.

That flaw is especially galling since it’s the fourth film directed by Jodie Foster, and her first since 2011’s The Beaver, a misguided but admirably demented attempt to restart Mel Gibson’s career. Foster has been an actor’s director in the past—Home for the Holidays is a bunch of great performances wrapped around a mediocre script—but she errs in Money Monster by handing the up-and-comer Jack O’Connell all the fun material. Beyond that, the film is existentially confused: It’s a media satire that isn’t humorous enough, and a hostage thriller that’s too light-hearted to maintain any real sense of danger.

Money Monster doubles as the name of the obnoxious stock-tip show hosted by Lee Gates (Clooney), a smiling can of hairspray who repeats Wall Street talking points under the guise of financial expertise. Despite Foster’s claims to the contrary, Lee comes off as an obvious parody of Mad Money host Jim Cramer, whose costume-and-sound-effect-heavy show suffered criticism after the 2008 financial crisis. To be sure, Money Monster’s script (credited to three writers) isn’t looking for subtlety: The financial industry is the villain, and Lee is a mass-media enabler, as well as an oblivious pawn in some larger fraudulent shell game orchestrated by a callous CEO (Dominic West).

Midway through a broadcast, Kyle (O’Connell), an errant viewer who lost his savings on a faulty tip, crashes the show with a gun and forces Lee to wear an explosive vest. Here, the stakes are set: Kyle wants justice for the systemic wrongs done to him and every other little guy, and it’s up to Lee and his trusty producer Patty (Roberts) to comply with his demands. At this point, Money Monster has to choose between being a nutty parody or a taut thriller, but the tone swings wildly back and forth. At one moment, Lee begs his viewers to buy a depressed stock to save his life and recover Kyle’s savings—a strange, clever nod to the back-patting arrangement between the financial industry and the softball shows that cover it. But minutes later, Kyle is shrieking expletives and firing shots at the ceiling.

O’Connell is a fine young actor who first emerged on the British teen series Skins and gave a breathtaking performance in the 2014 prison drama Starred Up that seemed to announce him as a major talent. Since then he hasn’t quite clicked, starring in Angelina Jolie’s prisoner-of-war drama Unbroken and now Money Monster, saddled with an unfortunate American accent both times. If there’s hidden depth to Kyle, O’Connell doesn’t find it, spending much of his considerable screen time jamming his gun against Lee’s forehead and promising to blow his brains out. Despite all that, Kyle never registers as a real or interesting threat, dropping out of the action (which is largely confined to Lee’s studio) whenever other characters need to take center stage.

If Foster was aiming for the edgy, vibrant energy of great hostage thrillers like Spike Lee’s Inside Man (in which she appeared), she missed what makes those kinds of movies great—characters. Kyle is a meaningless cipher, a stand-in for the “working man” who does a disservice to the film’s overall message by barely feeling like a person at all. Lee should be more of a fun foil for him—Clooney is agreeably dumb in the film’s early scenes, but this is an actor who has turned buffoonery into an art form for the Coen Brothers time and time again. Money Monster’s plot demands he snap into competence too quickly to register a real story arc. Roberts, largely trapped in the booth keeping things under control, deploys restraint and star wattage in equal measure, though her talents are largely wasted on her barking orders at everyone to remain calm.

There’s plenty of hand-wringing about the death of the movie star in Hollywood, as comic-book franchises and CGI spectacles that any young actor can be plugged into become the norm for big studios. It’s an overblown concern, but Money Monster is exactly the kind of film to inspire that worry: If a sub-par script like this can attract names like Clooney, Roberts, and Foster, maybe audiences really are doomed. Just a few more script drafts, some visual verve, and a tighter focus on the film’s satirical elements could have turned Money Monster into the 1970s throwback it wants to be. As it is, it’s destined for the drugstore bargain bin.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.