Mad Money

2008-01-18 (General release)

It’s depressing to see Diane Keaton in Mad Money, twitching and sputtering through yet another version of the character she patented back in the ’70s. Yes, she looks about as well coiffed and airbrushed she does in those ubiquitous L’Oreal Hair Color ads, but still, she seems tired, or maybe just bored. CoverGirl model Queen Latifah, on the other hand, brings to her role a characteristic energy and commitment. This may be because the movie borrows liberally from Set It Off, still a smart, angry film about class divisions that have only grown wider since 1996.

Despite such plotty borrowings (a group of desperate women stealing lots of money), Mad Money is watered down to the point of tedium. Bridget (Keaton) is supposed to be both canny and naïve, which makes her wholly ineffective as a spokesperson for any sort of politics. When her husband Don (Ted Danson) announces that he’s lost her job and they can no longer afford their mortgage, she mostly ignores the consequences until she learns she may lose the services of her maid Selina (Sylvia Castro Galan). Startled that Selina can’t labor for free — even briefly — Bridget confronts the change in her own life and expectations. Well, jeez, she thinks, she’ll have to get her own job. Luckily, Selina knows of one: the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank is hiring janitors.

Decked out in custom coveralls (with the turtleneck that Keaton prefers), Bridget is quick to observe the absurdity of the situation: one of the bank’s primary functions is to dispose of money that gets worn out. All that cash going to literal waste, she notes, might just as well go to her. She’s in need and if she works out her system just right, no one will notice. If the system might seem a challenge (otherwise, how has no one else figured it after all these years of the Kansas bank’s perfect record?), the film posits that it’s a matter of gendered thinking. Bridget is wily in ways borne of her experience as a woman, and the men in charge are obtuse because, well, because they are men.

Just so, Bridget’s system involves two women coworkers, intently moral single mom Nina (Latifah) and Jackie (Katie Holmes), who makes her workday less tedious by dancing incessantly to her iPod and lives in a trailer with her bland but scuzzy-seeming boyfriend Bob (Adam Rothberg) (he works at a meat-packing plant, underlining their joint white-trashy affect). The particular classing of the three thieves appears to make a case against the broadly conceived arrangement of capital.

But Bridget doesn’t absorb much in the way of moral lessons, and in fact, seems to infect her new friends with a sense of entitlement they never before dreamed possible. “I need more,” pronounces Jackie at a “team meeting” framed as an upscale restaurant dinner with significant others in tow. They all concur — even worrywart Don (“You could be endangering the dollar against the yen!”) — and the scheme goes on and on. At some point, you hear that they’ve been doing it for three years, though it’s hard to read time precisely, given all the silly-dilly montagey sequences.

While Nina is early established as the one participant with a sense of real stakes (if she’s caught, she tells Bridget, she loses her kids, and by the way, she’ll kill Bridget), she also makes a gaudy display of her newfound wealth. She enrolls those precious kids (who are props only, with barely a line of dialogue between them) in a fancy school and pays the tuition in cash (she gets around the principal’s suspicion by embracing it, intimating that she’s made the money dealing crack). Bridget is more careful, suddenly appreciating the risk of conspicuous consumption in a way she hadn’t before (that said, she only needs to maintain the affluence she enjoyed previously, so her masquerade isn’t nearly as restrictive as Jackie and Nina’s might be).

As unsubtle as it is, the movie’s broadly gendered arrangement seems tailor-made for director Callie Khouri (who wrote Thelma & Louise, back in the day). But the blatancy quickly turns from cute to tiresome, as the women appear to be genetically smarter and more sympathetic than the men, including Bob as well as their harrumphy boss Mr. Glover (Stephen Root) and the harrumphier cop Bryce Arbogast (Christopher McDonald, memorable as Thelma’s numb-nuts husband Darryl). It doesn’t help that the one guy designed not to be annoying — the noble security guard Barry (Roger Cross, not so long ago shot dead by Jack Bauer) — is literally reduced to pledging his troth to Nina in a closet. Surely it’s just coincidence that Jackie shows off her pretty pink panties stuffed full of dirty bills and the black bodies in lusty love must be moved off screen?

It hardly seems worth pursuing the many ambiguities or outright bad ideas in Mad Money‘s race, gender, or class politics. Yet they do speak, however ineptly, to a general carelessness in the ways popular culture represents and preserves stereotypes without posing questions or insisting that consumers feel responsible.

RATING 4 / 10