If the economy really is headed down the toilet, now is probably the right moment for "Mad Money," a comedy that lets Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, and Katie Holmes steal a fortune from the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank. This is the feistiest Hollywood movie about American women and their thankless jobs since "9 to 5." "Mad Money" isn't an overtly feminist revenge fantasy like "9 to 5," even though the director, Callie Khouri, wrote "Thelma & Louise" and made "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood." The fantasy here is tremendous wealth - and that knows no gender.
Keaton plays Bridget Cardigan (that name!), an upper-class ball of energy whose corporate-titan husband, Don (Ted Danson), hasn't worked in over a year. They're in deep debt. He can't find a job, so she takes one as a janitor at the bank (the tip comes from her housekeeper). There are few kookier sights than Diane Keaton in a drab jumpsuit pushing a maintenance cart. On Bridget's first day, she's given a tour of the facility and is shocked to see the shredding room where bins and bins of out-of-circulation bills are pulverized.
Being around all that money does a number on her. She blithely whips up a blueprint of the bank and proceeds to recruit accomplices on the payroll. She gets Nina from shredding (Latifah) first by stalking her, then by pulling on her heartstrings. Nina is a single mother of two in the projects but wants to send her boys to a private school. Both women go after Jackie (Holmes), a sweet-natured dipstick who runs the bins down to the shredding room and lives in a trailer (Bridget and Nina think she's a junkie). The scheme they hatch seems so simple it's unbelievable that no one else has tried it. Over the course of three years, they skim a little of the discarded cash every now and then until it piles up. This plan just requires a lot of nerve. And it's fun watching these three keep theirs.
Khouri actually tries to give the movie's maiden theft - a sub-"Ocean's" scheme if ever there were one - some Steven Soderbergh verve. Everywhere else her touch is light and cutesy. Even so, the dialogue in Glen Gers's script is sharp and sometimes witty, even in the tiny moments, as with Nina and her sons. The movie tries its hand at direct social commentary, but it's not up for that. Like the "Ocean's" movies, the object here is to see if this sustained robbery can come off.
A case is made for why the women would want the money, but there are no real politics behind their taking it. Who'll miss it? Choosing America's centermost Federal Reserve Bank is a neat heartland touch. And things get interesting when Nina considers sleeping with the security guard (Roger R. Cross) harboring a crush on her in order to keep him quiet. But both characters are too fundamentally conscientious to go there. The women, the men in their lives - Adam Rothenberg plays Holmes's slaughterhouse-worker husband - and the movie's races and classes unite in the name of pulling a lucrative fast one. It's unclear where the justice is, but the movie generates enough suspense with the caper and enough compassion for the bandits that we submit to the outlandishness.
Keaton is in rare form. Her usual ranting freak-outs are put to logical ends, as when a hitch arises late in the scheme and the starchy security manager, played by a wonderfully uptight Stephen Root, corners her, and she starts with the hands and the shrieking. As an endearment, her expensive-looking haircut seems undone in some scenes, and in others she doesn't appear to be wearing much makeup. She starts to look the part. She starts to look human.
Latifah is reliably good. She's at her best when forced to be defensive, and the movie keeps her back against the wall. Holmes is likable and shockingly funny. She has a face for comedy. The hilarious snake dances she does while scooping bills off a cart suggest she has a body for it, too. In fact, this character seems like such a mess Holmes should be the only choice to play Britney Spears in "Oops! I Did It Again" or whatever they'll call the tragic farce about Spears's life.
These three are good. So are Danson, Cross, and Rothenberg. And yet, this movie scared me. What is it saying about us? This is basically a bunch of rich people celebrating pathological greed. There's nothing satirical about the film. It's heartfelt - a cautionary comedy whose tonal B-side is a terrifying, if unwitting case study about an addictive lust not for spending or wealth but for cash itself. To that end, the used money in this movie is old and worn-out and sad. There's also so much of it that it starts to make you sick, like too much sugar or too much anything.
One of the posters for "Mad Money" shows Keaton, Latifah, and Holmes ecstatic in a downpour of bills. They look like they just won both showcases on "The Price Is Right." There's a similar, even more pornographic shot in the movie itself. It's galling, mostly since by the time it comes, caution has clearly been thrown to the winds. And a survey of the women's glee suggests a disturbingly euphoric climax. They're having a cash-gasm.