Money Monster (directed by Jodie Foster), is set in one of those shiny financial market TV shows full of exaggerated numbers and practically devoid of facts or pragmatic advice. Its king and money monster is Lee Gates, who faithfully (if cynically) reports on the latest and greatest financial instruments that the common people should invest in. His salesmanship, disguised as reporting, is classic Wall Street macho: full of hyperbole, impulsiveness, and a contagious confidence amplified by Mr. Clooney’s superb delivery. At the Money Monster’s court are the people who make the show happen, this smooth Busby-Berkeley-glossy production full of sight/sound gags to entertain and charts that are supposed to inspire confidence. Notable is the head of production, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts), who has been producing Lee for many years and knows how the sausage is made. Her brisk, experienced, calm work process literally holds up the show and its manic host. He may be the star of the show but she is the stage manager who keeps the set and its attendant illusions of grandeur from collapsing.
Equity (directed by Meera Menon), sits squarely within the geographic Wall Street but its deal making is, like Money Monster, still behind the scenes, in a privileged and closed world unknown even to its savviest investors. Here, the setting is a Wall Street firm with both an investment arm and a brokerage arm. The money monster (until she hits the glass ceiling) is Naomi Bishop, who is about to engineer the initial public offering (IPO) of a Silicon Valley company. Her stage manager is Erin Manning, an ambitious younger VP who is looking for a promotion and a raise; like Money Monster’s Patty, she has worked alongside her boss for years. While Naomi calls the shots, Erin is the team coach, ensuring everyone’s cooperation, frequently repairing rifts where necessary and sacrificing a great deal of her personal life for the sake of the team.
The possibility of making a ton of monkey on a relatively unknown company starts the motion in both films. In Money Market, the catalyst is Lee Gates’ very strongly-worded advice to buy shares in Ibis Capital. Ibis’ subsequent and quick devaluation (made possible, of course, by some shady backstage maneuverings) precipitates a dramatic act of violence: a Joe Everyman named Kyle Budwell holds Lee hostage in front of the cameras, demanding an explanation for the stock’s devaluation and an apology for his great financial loss. He asks for responsibility, culpability, and equity. In Equity, it is the impending IPO of Naomi’s pet firm, Cachet, which brings all the Wall Street players and traitors out into the field. The money motivation, of course, is a so great and so all-encompassing that it serves to show everyone’s true colors, notably those whom Bishop considers her allies.
Of the Real Housewives TV franchise, the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum wrote:
Over the years, I developed a private theory about the franchise’s appeal: when the New York version became an enormous hit, around 2008, it felt like a cultural conspiracy to distract the world from the almost universally male villains of the financial crash. Rather than satirize rich men in suits, the show put the bull’s-eyes on their trophy wives, painting them as vain parasites, symbols of greed—consumerist gargoyles who might absorb the fury that was more logically directed at Wall Street itself.
I had Nussbaum’s theory very much on my mind while watching these films as, in contrast to the Real Housewives, the women of Money Monster and Equity are the moral core of the story, the people who keep Wall Street from going completely awry. They may not always or ever be able to change the machine but they highlight those moments of dubious ethics (arguably, all of Wall Street is predicated on dubious ethics, but we’ll let that pass for now). They’re the reluctant Greek chorus, the narrative’s in-house compliance officers. Patty Fenn (played perfectly by Julia Roberts), while very much a part of the propaganda machine, is one of the most decent human beings on the show. Her job is starting to fray at the edges, she’s undervalued/underpaid, and is, moreover, leaving Lee to produce a less morally questionable program. When Lee is taken hostage in the studio and on live TV, she marshals all her experience and technical resources to keep him, Kyle, and her team from getting killed. To end the hostage stand-off, she goes in search of the truth about the stock’s decline – whether she truly sympathizes with Kyle is hard to say, but she clearly has some moral chutzpah when it counts. Aiding her in search of the truth is Diane Lester, Ibis’ PR director, who is caught between her desire to help Patty and her company loyalty. But she is not caught for long. Her male supervisors undervalue and patronize her public relations role; they hide vital information from her and leave her to flounder publicly on their behalf. Though her colleagues undervalue her role, she does not and very satisfyingly (spoiler alert) throws them under the bus.
Equity‘s women are a little more complex. Naomi Bishop enjoys making money for herself and for her firm, but is frequently hampered by her absolute insistence on conservative numbers, due diligence, and blind trust in Erin Manning and in her lover, who together undermine her professionally. Naomi has no qualms about making money—indeed, her promotion relies upon it—but she knows when to go gracefully when personal betrayals undermine her professionally. Manning, on the other side of the coin, is generally a decent person who tries her best, like a good millennial, to Lean In, and holds her team and her clients together when Naomi cannot. But the glass ceiling her boss hits prevents her from moving up, so she moves her boss out of the way.
It is notable and significant that women have helmed these productions. Equity, in particular, was financed and produced by actual women on Wall Street who wanted to tell their side of the story without compromising their equal enjoyment of money-making and career building. In Jodie Foster’s* capable and sly hands, the female characters are given significant weight and presence, which makes Money Market better than a typical Hollywood-made Wall Street thriller. These films remind us that it is absolutely vital to have female representation and agency both in film and in professional life.
Money Monster, dir. Jodie Foster, 99 min. TriStar Pictures, et al., 2016. Digital out 16 August 2016.
Equity, dir. Meera Menon,100 min. 2016. Opening in the San Francisco Bay Area 12 August 2016.
*Side note: can we have Jodie Foster direct everything set in New York? She has such a good feel for the city’s pulse.