Think of "Mad Money" as "Ocean's Eleven" with more estrogen, less glittery metropolis appeal, and Queen Latifah. It's a strident mix of audience-reassuring nonsense and spunky caper construction, and truthfully, "Mad Money" is not a waste of time. It just feels like it.
With her husband (Ted Danson) squeezed out of work, Bridget (Diane Keaton) is left to find a job to help pay off the couple's monumental debt. She locates employment as a janitor at the Kansas City Federal Reserve, working around the massive bricks of old money sent off to be shredded. Sensing untold riches if she could get her mitts on the elderly loot, Bridget entices co-workers Nina (Queen Latifah) and Jackie (Katie Holmes) to help build a plan to embezzle the coin during their daily rounds. Finding their dishonest efforts successful, the trio embarks on an odyssey of financial freedom that lasts over three years, until banking agents start to notice these laborers aren't exactly living the minimum-wage lifestyle.
Callie Khouri, Hollywood's go-to woman for tales of female empowerment ("Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," "Thelma and Louise"), knows what she's looking for with "Mad Money." It's simply a question of if the audience will want to participate in a fluffy heist film with scattershot demonstrations of comedy.
Personally, I was quite pleased with "Mad Money" when it pursued straightforward thievery. The character of Bridget is written with startling overtones of pure greed, and it's a treat to see Khouri follow through on the performance, instructing Keaton to remain essentially reckless for a majority of the picture. There's a lot of fun to be found in the mechanics of the crime: the three women dream up an elaborate lock-and-key switcheroo proposal that the director encapsulates unusually well, drawing out the suspense of the steal with nicely played setbacks and assorted anxieties among the characters. It's always a treat to watch the "little guy" pinch from a powerful consumer machine, and mercifully Khouri respects that thrill.
However, she's less assured with the jokes, which range from desperately unfunny to just plain uninspired. When Latifah has to present an offering of racial panic (ain't whitey silly?) to grab chuckles, that's pretty much the bottom of the imagination barrel. The "comedy" leaves little room for the film to find comfort in the slapstick and trailer park yokel bits Khouri has the unfortunate task of making presentable. "Mad Money" isn't a full-blood farce, more of a frivolous caper, but when it reaches for jokes, the film is drained of any admirable whimsy.
Without spoiling the climax of the film, I will say that "Mad Money" leaves on a sour note; it cop-outs when time comes to address the severity of the crimes, and Khouri assumes a noxious audience-pleasing stance for the final act. It's a dramatic miscalculation and a coincidental display of greed; the film doesn't bow out on a note of waylaid justice, but a pummeling one of smug satisfaction. "Mad Money" certainly has its moments of charm, but they're sullied by Khouri's impractical desire to exit the film on a festive "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves" note. These women are charismatic thieves, not entitled angels. Khouri can't quite figure out the difference.
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