Wednesday, December 30, 2015

'The Big Short' review

As someone who grew up in the 2000s, I know that the housing bubble in 2008 and the subsequent near-apocalyptic collapse of the world economy was a big deal. It's one of those things that just constantly hung around the news for years and while living in the second biggest US banking city probably didn't help, there's no doubt that the 2008 crash was a defining event for the decade. And yet, before watching this film, I couldn't have told you what happened. And if you did try to tell me, what you were saying probably didn't make any sense unless you really over-simplified things. This is the magic of Adam McKay's superbly tragic film The Big Short. It doesn't dumb things down for the audience. This film is too smart for that. Instead, it doles out its information in a way that people can understand. It knows that people don't care about or comprehend CDOs or ISDAs or synthetic CDOs. So, it gives you Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it to you.


By taking something so mundane and making it so entertaining, comedic director Adam McKay has opened the floodgates to create one of the best movies of the year. Economics are not, nor have they ever been, an interesting subject. As Ryan Gosling's smug banker Jared Vennett says- "Wall Street likes to use complicated terms to make you think that only they can do what they do." Economics uses a wide array of acronyms, graphs and complicated mathematical equations to explain supply and demand, production possibilities and the overall trends of economics. It's endlessly confusing. Thanks to a killer script and the use of a variety of narrative techniques, Adam McKay has somehow made economics less mind-boggling. The material is very deep, but there's never a moment in this film where the audience doesn't know what's going on or what the characters are talking about.

The Big Short looks at the ineptitude of the banks with a slightly humorous eye, but ultimately, the message at the heart of this film is truly sad. Why didn't anybody stop the banks before it was too late, and most importantly, why didn't they listen to the guys who had it all figured out? McKay doesn't have an answer to this question, but in the process of trying to solve the puzzle of the housing collapse, he has created a movie that will make you laugh while simultaneously crushing you and shaking your faith in the system.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) has found something very, very interesting. The socially awkward doctor-turned-hedge fund manager has discovered a bubble at the heart of the housing market. Everybody thinks that he's crazy. The chief investor of his hedge fund, his co-workers, the banks- to them, Burry is certifiably insane. Burry shorts over $1.3 billion on the housing market, placing all of his chips on the idea of the housing collapse in 2008. The banks accept his "free money" willingly, but the rest of the financial world brushes off his ideas. Except for Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). The investor (who also serves as the narrator of the film) knows that there's opportunity in placing money on credit default swaps.

Thanks to a wrong phone number, Vennett's idea ends up in the hands of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), the pissed-off hedge fund manager who is sick of the corruption and ignorance that dominates Wall Street. Baum and his small team of partners (Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong) are initially distrustful of Vennett. Because let's face it, Jared Vennett is kind of a shady character- he reminds me of a Jordan Belfort lite. But once Baum gets the chance to investigate the facts, he realizes that buying defaults is a brilliant move. In addition, word also gets to Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), two young and hungry businessmen trying to get to the big table on Wall Street. Through the help of retired  Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), the two will find their own unique way to make money off the crash. As the crash approaches, these individuals will soon learn of the total stupidity of everybody involved with the banking fiasco and the diseased center of the financial district that nearly destroyed the American economy.

The Big Short is drawing a lot of comparisons between itself and The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese's 2013 epic. And those comparisons are understandable- both are very dynamic and energetic films that tell stories of financial greed. When I saw The Big Short for the first time (I've seen it twice now), I was expecting to see something incredibly similar to Scorsese's film, a sort of Wolf of Wall Street 2.0. I couldn't have been more wrong. The films are different in a distinct way. I maintain my stance that Scorsese's film is a generation-defining movie, a film that presents a terrible view of the American Dream gone insane (you wouldn't believe how many people signed up for my Economics class thinking it would be like Leonardo DiCaprio's Caligula-inspired opus). But I do think that Adam McKay had to do something much, much trickier with The Big Short.

The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas in the world of stock brokers.

The Big Short is a film that has to try to explain the complicated and endlessly convoluted economic collapse in a way that everyday audiences can understand.

The fact that The Big Short almost manages to be as wildly absorbing as that film is a testament to Adam McKay. Because without Adam McKay, there's a good chance that this movie is really, really boring. McKay has been a stalwart in the world of comedy for years. Before this film, every single movie that he had ever made had been with Will Ferrell- Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, both Anchorman movies and so on. McKay is an outsider in the world of Oscar voters and For Your Consideration ads and critics circles. Which is why he was the perfect one to direct The Big Short.

Any other director would have told it in a very straight way, detailing the triumph of the outsiders who took down the system. It would have been a traditional Oscar movie and it would have sucked. Some have complained about The Big Short playing "inside baseball" (a term for a movie that tells a story filled with info that only a few people can appreciate), but that's completely wrong. In the hands of any other director, The Big Short would be "inside baseball"- it would have been pretentious and inaccessible to most audience members. Adam McKay takes a difficult story and makes it easy for everybody to understand, trying a wide variety of techniques to convey difficult information. Whether it's cutaways to celebrities like Selena Gomez explaining synthetic CDOs or Ryan Gosling's narration or the use of songs like Ludacris' "Money Maker," McKay's film is constantly innovating, keeping the audience on their toes. His script is fast and funny and his direction is both intimate and sweeping. He deserves every award that is coming his way.

Thankfully, McKay has help from a wonderful troupe of actors. If Spotlight hadn't already hit theaters this year, I would have said for sure that this was the best cast of the year (and it can probably hold its own against Spotlight). There's no real lead actor here- just like Tom McCarthy's instant classic journalism flick, this is a true ensemble piece. Christian Bale is probably the standout as Burry, the brilliant hedge fund manager with a glass eye. Bale is terrific and he masters all of the character's small tics, from small facial movements to the way that he moves and so on. He's simply one of the best actors on the planet. Steve Carell is also wonderful as Baum, who succeeds as the movie's emotional core. This is a much less showy role for Carell when put in comparison with his turn in last year's Foxcatcher, but it's an impressive one nonetheless- on a character level, Carell has the most to work with. Gosling succeeds in playing the sleazy investor role of Vennett and he brings so much swagger to the role. He continues to show that he's one of our most dynamic actors, able to play any character and do a fantastic job.

Brad Pitt is probably the only other superstar in the cast and he does solid work as the paranoid former Wall Street banker Ben Rickert. Finn Wittrock and John Magaro are mostly unknown actors, but they are remarkably good as the young guys eager to make a couple bucks off of the impending crisis. And to complete the cast, Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater all bring their own unique touch to create Mark Baum's motley band of investors. They mostly follow Mark around as he shudders in disbelief, and yet, they each do wonders with their characters. In addition, Melissa Leo has one great scene and Marisa Tomei is left with little to do.

The Big Short is a blast of fun. That's not debatable. It's a terrifically well-paced film that never lets up until the very end. And that moment where it finally lets up is McKay's final stroke of genius. He lifts the veil of entertainment to reveal something truly tragic and almost depressing. All of this happened and nobody got caught. And Wall Street and the bankers and the ratings agencies will probably just keep on doing the same old thing. On initial viewing, it feels like a total punch to the gut. You're simply astonished by what happens and you don't expect it at all. The second time around, a profound sadness sets in. McKay is great at staging the zippy humor of the film, but he's even better at creating the cataclysmic ending.

As an indictment of a system that failed us all, The Big Short is heartbreaking. And as a film and a piece of cinema, it's fascinating and constantly engaging. Simply put, it's everything that you could want in a movie. After years of working in the comedy genre, Adam McKay has broken out into his own unique flavor of storytelling and it works brilliantly. Improving upon multiple viewings and led by a consistently phenomenal cast, The Big Short is a true eye-opener and an unexpected burst of pure cinematic enjoyment.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.2/10)


Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, Screen Rant, Joblo

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