"Mad Money," which was directed by Callie Khouri (the screenwriter, most famously, of "Thelma and Louise"), stars Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes as Bridget, Nina and Jackie, a trio of down-on-their-luck women who hatch a plan to stick it to the man that doesn't result in their driving off a cliff.
This, on the face of it, is good news, though some might disagree. After all, "Mad Money" is a feather-light comedy, even if at first glance it seems to be going for something more interesting than the girls-just-wanna-have-fun formula it quickly settles for. The opening scenes -- postgame-analysis interviews with the characters intercut with images of them hovering over their toilets shredding money and barbecuing bills in the backyard -- are larded with caustic jabs at consumer culture. "Wanting is the root of all wanting stuff," Jackie's husband, Bob (Adam Rothenberg), explains, dimly but not altogether unwisely. "That's what she was doing when she got the whole idea," says Jackie (Holmes), describing the origins of criminal epiphany, "shopping, being a good American." When Nina (Latifah) rebuffs Bridget's (Keaton) invitation to join her in a life of crime by saying, "I don't want things I can't have," Bridget replies scornfully, "Do you live in America?"
But all of this soon detours into a material-dreams-come-true fantasy, and before you know it the ladies are flinging bank notes at one another in Bridget's floral bedroom, looking like they're one hurled decorative cushion away from a pillow fight.
Based on a British television movie called "Hot Money" and written by Glenn Gers from a script by John Mister, "Mad Money" is a heist movie in the sense that it centers on a place where large amounts of money are kept and contains characters who wish to avail themselves of that money by illegal, but entertainingly clever, means. This, however, is where the comparisons to other, better caper films end. "Mad Money" dangles the promise of what has to be the hardest-to-pull-off heist since "Ocean's" whichever and then denies us the pleasure of the excruciating detail. (Speaking of -- it takes 11 people to rip off a casino but only three to rob the Fed?)
Keaton plays an affluent housewife whose husband has been out of work for a year. When she finds out they are deeply in debt and about to lose their enormous house, Bridget goes looking for a job. She soon finds that her age, limited skills and decades-old comparative-literature degree aren't in high demand. This is how she ends up scrubbing toilets in coveralls at the Federal Reserve, where every day a million dollars of worn-out bills are dropped into a shredder.
How Bridget, former housewife, sudden criminal mastermind, hatches her plan, we never really find out. All it seems to take is a few glances around the place and a trip to the hardware store to plan the entire operation. Getting Nina (Latifah), a money shredder, and Jackie (Holmes), a money cart pusher, on board isn't much harder or any more perilous. Nina needs the money to pay for her kids' education and Jackie's personality is too one-note for qualms to find a place to settle. In fact, "Mad Money" makes robbing the government look so breezy that the movie devotes an entire scene to the characters figuring out their "go sign," the secret signal that they're ready to set the plan in motion. (They smooth an eyebrow.) Soon, using nothing more than a Master lock and a trash can, the unlikely new best friends are hundreds of thousands of dollars richer, and the officious head of security (Stephen Root) is none the wiser.
Why do the others get involved? Nina is a single mother supporting two young boys whom Bridget draws into the plan by stuffing private-school applications into her locker. (Which is sweet but negates the second-biggest pleasure of the heist movie, which is that the criminals be charming scoundrels.) As magnetic a presence as Latifah is, the appealing but saintly Nina feels like a rehash, and not a particularly exciting one. Jackie, meanwhile, is not much beyond a slightly disconcerting cliché, a gum-chewing trailer dweller who rarely removes her earbuds and whose insulin syringes (she's a diabetic) lead her partners to believe she's a drug addict (and that's before they ask her to join the team). She wants to travel and is disappointed to learn that Czechoslovakia, such as it was, no longer exists. Holmes' appearance in the film does, however, provide the biggest mystery. Why would she, newly made-over, tabloidized and married to a superstar, take the part? Did she learn nothing from Nicole Kidman's example? Because this role is strictly and-then-not-much-happened-after-"Dawson's Creek."
Keaton and Ted Danson, who plays her husband, Don, are the comedic bright spot in the movie, not least because they are ridiculous. Bridget approaches the plan with the can-do sunniness of a coddled housewife, while Don stands back and stays supportively out of her way.
The big problem with "Mad Money" is not that the situation is implausible -- this is a caper; it's supposed to be over the top -- it's that it doesn't do the work necessary to con us into believing it. Keaton brings her usual eccentric energy to the role and, as always, is a pleasure to watch, but no amount of goofy behavior or money porn can compensate for a story that plays like it was written on the cheap.
"Mad Money" MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual material and language, and brief drug references. Running time: 104 minutes. In general release.