Sunday, February 03, 2008

Mad Money / ** (PG-13)

Bridget Cardigan: Diane Keaton
Jackie Truman: Katie Holmes
Nina Brewster: Queen Latifah
Don Cardigan: Ted Danson
Bob Truman: Adam Rothenberg
Barry: Roger Cross
Glover: Stephen Root
Bryce Arbogast: Chris McDonald

Overture Films and Millennium Films present a film directed by Callie Khouri. Written by Glenn Gers, based on an earlier screenplay by John Mister and the screenplay “Hot Money” by Neil McKay and Terry Winsor. Running time: 104 min. Rated PG-13 (for sexual material and language, and brief drug references).

“Mad Money” opens with Diane Keaton’s character discovering that her husband, played by Ted Danson, is selling their high-end upper middle class house because he has been without work for more than a year and they are over $200,000 in debt. She has no idea they owed so much and is doing her Diane Keaton high-pitched panic thing while Danson flops around on the couch whining that he was downsized by his company and that the spiraling economy doesn’t hold much immediate promise for big business management. Sure these two actors can pull this material off, but these people should be far past the panic point. Their problems are severe, and any conversation they might have about them deserve a weight and reverence that is just not present. They are too smart to believe histrionics will provide any sort of relief.

In fact, “Mad Money” is filled with characters who are smarter than the situations in which they place themselves. Keaton plays Bridget Cardigan, who takes a job as a janitor at the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank to curb her financial woes. It is the only job an English lit major who hasn’t worked in over thirty years can get with benefits. There she meets two other women whose jobs involve the process in which the government destroys worn out bills to be replaced by newly minted cash. Queen Latifah (“Hairspray”) is Nina Brewster, a single mom with concerns about her boys getting fair opportunities within the American education system. Katie Holmes (“Pieces of April”) is Jackie Truman, an apparent airhead willing to commit federal felony just for the hell of it.

Bridget approaches these two women with a plan to steal the worn out money in the middle of its destruction process so it will be untraceable. Neither Nina nor Jackie has as strong a motive to commit such a high risk crime as Bridget, so it is hard to believe they would join her scheme involving a Masterlock padlock that can be purchased at any hardware store. Nina is by far the most intelligent and has the most to lose—her boys. Jackie is handled like a ditz who might have a drug problem. It turns out that she has early onset diabetes, a fact that is never revealed to anyone but the audience and never factors into the plot. But Jackie turns out to be very intelligent, a contrast that is never used to advance the comedy or the plot.

Director Callie Khouri uses one heist movie gimmick to frame the story. All the characters involved in the caper tell the story after the fact in individual interrogations with the police. The only character not telling the story is Bridget, whose fate remains in question until the end. This style of storytelling works and offers most of the successful comedic moments, including highlighting the real ditz—Jackie’s husband Bob (Adam Rothenberg)—and proving that Danson retains the charm that brought him fame on “Cheers”.

But Khouri doesn’t employ any other stylistic beats traditionally—or even not traditionally—found in caper films. Instead, the movie as a whole plays like a vehicle for Keaton to act like Keaton, doing that same spaz shtick she has built a career on from “Annie Hall” to “Because I Said So.” This disappointment begs two questions. First, why must directors and producers insist that Keaton be herself and forget that she is also a talented actress when playing characters that don’t reflect her own personality, as she’s proved in films like “The Godfather” trilogy, “Little Drummer Girl”, or “Marvin’s Room”? Keaton has a great comedic personality, but watching her bumble her way through as she conspicuously scopes out her score only brings more attention to the fact that there is no way these women could really pull off this crime.

The second question is how such a talented screenwriter has Callie Khouri, who wrote the Oscar-winning script for “Thelma & Louise”, can so easily forget the relationship between story and style and settle for such mediocrity in the script she’s chosen to direct. Why only use one aspect of the caper style? Instead of showing Keaton goof her way around the high security, she could lay the plan out verbally and embellish the story while the images show she doesn’t have the cool she pretends.

“Mad Money” isn’t a terrible movie. It provides likeable characters that will make its target audience smile. It’s harmless, but it could be so much more daring. It has the seeds of a scathing indictment of the American economy but plays it safe, avoiding direct attacks at a society with a president whose solution to everything from recession to terrorism is “Go shopping!” I can imagine a much better film made with the same cast and the same basic story. Just think how Woody Allen might handle this material, with witty dialogue highlighting the character quirks instead of just introducing them to differentiate the names and faces. Or maybe Wes Anderson could make sad sack heroes of this band of misfits, instead of just leading them down a predictable road where it takes no brains to outwit people who should be the best at what they do.

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