Monday, January 21, 2008

Mad Money

By Elise Nakhnikian

Have you heard about that great Queen Latifah movie about a group of girlfriends working as janitors who decide to rob banks? It’s called Set It Off, and it’s well worth checking out on DVD.

But Mad Money, the one in theaters now? Forget about it.

Set It Off set Latifah off nicely in the kind of big, bold, ballsy role she never seems to get any more, even pairing the reportedly gay actress with a hot female love interest. The equally fierce Viveca Fox and Jada Pinkett Smith played close friends of hers, both of whom were radicalized by recent traumas and looking for a way out of the dangerous dead end of ghetto life. (The fourth friend, played by Kimberly Elise, was a diffident single mother.) You root for them all, but the movie doesn’t let them off the hook. In the end, the robbery is just an even deader end for all but one of them – and hardly worth the price even for her.

Mad Money phonies up just about everything Set It Off gets right, starting with the female friendships that make up the core of both movies.

This time around, the thieves are led by a middle-aged, white, upper-middle-class housewife temporarily down on her luck. When her laid-off husband starts to despair of ever landing another job, Bridget (Diane Keaton) goes to work as a janitor at the Federal Reserve. But her salary isn’t nearly enough to support the life she feels entitled to, so she cooks up a plan to rob the Reserve, filching some of the old money that’s been taken out of circulation to be shredded.

To help carry out her plan, Bridget enlists two younger women who have so little in common with her that it’s hard to believe they’d ever team up on anything, let alone become best friends. Nina (Latifah) is a no-nonsense, straight-arrow single mother who just wants to do right by her boys. Jackie (Katie Holmes) is a perky ditz. Perpetually flinging herself about to the music on her iPod and mugging madly whenever she delivers a line, she comes off as some kind of muppet.

Actually, nearly everyone overacts broadly, even the wonderful Steven Root, who plays their humorless boss, and whose comedy is usually rooted in inhabiting a completely believable character. Keaton skulks around so conspicuously, while planning and executing her heists, that you stop believing in the airtight security that’s central to the plot: Anyone watching her shoot sideways glances at the security cameras or jabbering away on her cell phone in the ladies’ room would surely have gotten suspicious enough to investigate. And when they give each other the agreed-on hand signal, the three make themselves more rather than less conspicuous, dragging their fingers across their brows with exaggerated theatricality.

Their motivations for stealing the money also distance you rather than pulling you in. True, Nina wants to put her sons in a good school, but Bridget just wants to maintain the swanky lifestyle she’s been in danger of losing since her husband lost his job, and Jackie wants to travel. For this we’re supposed to cheer when they get their loot to a safe place and start (yes, really) tossing bills around in the air?

The format doesn’t help, either. This is one of those movies that jump back and forth in time for no good reason. Perhaps to make up for the confusion that could create, there’s a lot of exposition in the form of confessions by the three women and their husbands and boyfriends. But the writing’s pedestrian, and we generally see what they’re telling us acted out later anyhow, so those deposition scenes just slow down the pace, making the movie seem longer than its 100 minutes.

In the end, this thoroughly predictable, emotionally hollow movie is just another superficially feminist chick flick from director Callie Khouri, who made her bones with the screenplay for Thelma and Louise. Khouri also wrote and directed Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and this has the feel of that one. It asks us to revel in the self-satisfied, mutually enabling behavior of a group of not particularly appealing women, assuming that we will love them as much as they, inexplicably, love each other.

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