Reviewed By Nathaniel Bell
An “Ocean's Eleven” for the female set, Callie Khouri's “Mad Money” is in sync with the thought processes of its protagonists, a trio of down-on-their-luck women who contrive an ingenious way of ripping off the Federal Reserve Bank.
By and large, films with a mid-January release date don't arouse high expectations, but “Mad Money” is a decent one, laying bare its modest aims and achieving them with grace and some fun, too.
In an unusual set of circumstances (probably a coincidence), no less than four femme-driven pictures open this month. “Mad Money,” the first theatrical release of Overture Films (the new kid on the movie block), will have to compete with the teen age comedy, “Juno,” a hit proving to have long legs, another chick flick, the retro romantic comedy “27 Dresses,” and the Diane Lane horror-thriller “Untraceable.”
There's something cunning in the way the film manages to address the issue of larceny without sacrificing a happy ending for its likeable main characters. Almost immediately, screenwriter Glenn Gers (working from an earlier draft by John Mister) establishes plausible motives behind the big heist.
Bridget (Diane Keaton) is trying to hang on to her swanky upper-middle-class house for the benefit of her recently downsized husband (played by a very funny Ted Danson). Bridget's co-worker Nina (Queen Latifa) is a single mom desirous of a better environment for her two young boys. Third protag Jackie (Katie Holmes) is married to ne'er do well Bob (Adam Rothenberg)–both blas trailer dwellers simply wishing to be debt-free. Their collective misfortune creates pathos, while their plucky personalities provide an extra boost of girl-power.
The heist itself is a fairly complex job that relies on Swiss timing, and director Khouri (still best-known for her 1991 “Thelma & Louise” script) manages to squeeze some anticipatory suspense from this done-to-death scenario. The full impact of the criminal act is softened by the fact that the filched currency (consisting of worn-out bills) is set for destruction anyway. “It's like recycling!” Bridget exclaims.
The business of re-circulating money was already handled in the frothy 1967 comedy “Who's Minding the Mint,” a film that may have been a reference point for “Hot Money,” the made-for-TV British production on which “Mad Money” is based. Both versions provide plenty of rooting interest for its band of criminals, pitting them against a hostile, male-dominated environment. We are led to believe that these women are simply getting back at a system that regards them as inferior. The moral quandary thickens, however, when the girls succumb to greed and they decide to go back for more cash after their initial objectives have been reached. As Bob unhelpfully warns, “Wanting is the root of all-needing stuff.”
Khouri has carved out an enviable niche for herself as a manufacturer of women's pictures. Her first screenplay, “Thelma & Louise,” won her an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a WGA Award. Her directorial debut, the sentimental chick flick “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” also featuring a predominantly female cast, dealt with intergenerational conflict and reconciliation.
“Mad Money” shrewdly plays to multiple demographics, with Keaton representing the link to the 1970s, Queen Latifah giving voice to the concerns of African-American women, and Katie Holmes picking up the slack as a cute but slow-witted white chick.
Khouri's depiction of males is slightly idealized but generally flattering, typified by Roger Cross's sweet portrayal of Barry, a conscientious security guard who joins the team after falling for Nina. The fact that the girls are the breadwinners puts a gentle spin on the notion that men are always the providers in a relationship.
“Mad Money” is as light as whipped cream, but it wouldn't be half as good without its appealing, multidisciplinary cast. Keaton once again proves herself an adroit comedienne (as if it needed proving after a career that spans four decades and 50 movies), endearingly jittery and intelligent. Queen Latifah registers a warmly humane portrait of a working-class black woman with vast reserves of inner strength. And Katie Holmes does some truly funny double takes.
Stephen Root, the chameleon-like character favored by the Coen brothers, merits special mention for doing the most with the least, taking the underwritten role of a relentless bank manager and turning it into comic silver.
It may prove impossible to suppress a smile when, after stuffing her brassiere with stacks of $50 bills, Nina is approached by Barry with the ultimatum: “Unless you have very hard, rectangular breasts, we need to talk.”
Bridget Cardigan–Diane Keaton
Nina Brewster–Queen Latifah
Jackie Truman–Katie Holmes
Don Cardigan–Ted Danson
Bob Truman–Adam Rothenberg
Bryce Arbogast–Christopher McDonald
An Overture Films release.
Produced by James Acheson, Jay Cohen and Frank DeMartini.
Executive producers: Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, Mick Flannigan, Robert Gree and Wendy Kram.
Directed by Callie Khouri.
Written by Glenn Gers, based on the screenplay “Hot Money,” by Neil McKay and Terry Winsor, based on an original screenplay by John Mister.
Camera: John Bailey.
Editor: Wendy Green Bricmont.
Music: James Newton Howard.
Production designer: Brent Thomas.
Costume designer: Susie DeSanto.
Running time: 104 Minutes