Thursday, December 24, 2015

New movie review: The Big Short

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling star in director Adam McKay's housing crisis comedy-drama The Big Short.

“We’re going to see a dead kid. Maybe it shouldn’t be a party.” – Gordie Lachance in Stand By Me

Screw the people who did this to us. You may recall the housing market crash of seven or eight years ago that essentially flattened the planet. We have a pretty good idea of every individual at the top of every corporation responsible and all their underlings who helped. They are easy to find because instead of ending up in prison, where they rightly belong, they are mostly still running other companies. Those who are not are living secluded dream lives on their millions and millions of dollars. So, yeah, screw ’em.

Co-writer-director Adam McKay’s The Big Short is a snotty, acid-tongued rebuke of all the people and systems that got us into this mess. The film is often a little too smart ass for its own good – perhaps to be expected from the director of Will Ferrell comedies such as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers – but it is punk-rock, activist filmmaking of the highest order, a grimy, angry takedown of all the liars and bastards who tanked the world economy.

Finn Wittrock and John Magaro in The Big Short.
Written by McKay and Charles Randolph, based in part on the book by Michael Lewis, the script has the notable distinction of having no heroes. There are people you could choose to root for – Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Charlie Gellar (John Magaro), or Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) – but let’s not kid ourselves. Regardless of how much concern they show, every main character in this movie is trying to get rich off the destruction of the housing market. It is simply a question of how much guilt will be associated with all that cash.

For a guy like Baum, the answer is a lot of guilt. Baum hates the high-finance world and would dismantle the whole thing if he could, while he also harbors guilt over the suicide of his brother. Gellar and Shipley are two young guys with a small company who see a way to make some money and get in way over their heads. The deeper they go, the darker things get, and the harder the load is to bear on their souls. Burry is an analyst who saw the crash coming from a mile away and just wants his investors to acknowledge he is right so he can make them a lot of money.

Most of these guys are just stumbling their way through the world of Wall Street, trying to make money and come out the other side with their consciences clean – diametrically opposed positions, the film seems to argue. Such is not the case for Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). He is a shyster who just happens to be right. He tells Baum and his group they can make a killing betting against the traditionally solid housing market, which is what Burry has already told his investors.

The engine that drives the film is the investigation as Baum and his team and Gellar and Shipley set out to determine just how precarious the market is. They put boots on the ground and head to Florida to meet the people hawking and taking these bad loans. They dig into the scary, tragic reality of bankers doing everything they can to undermine the system and prey on the most vulnerable groups of people. As the evidence mounts, it becomes increasingly clear this whole house of cards is set to tumble.

However, it takes a trip to a bankers’ convention in Las Vegas to convince Baum just how beyond repair the situation is. If the film has a soul – it could be argued that it does not – it is Baum, and Carell is magnificent at portraying a man who thinks of himself as fed up, but deep down, he maintains some kind of optimism. This scandal, this fraud, and these crooks are what finally rob him of his hope. By the end of the convention, he is ready to double down on the impending crash. After all, no reasonable person could meet the people at the helm of this ship and foresee any conclusion beyond shipwreck.

Gosling in The Big Short.
McKay and Randolph’s only major misstep is in the character of Vennett, who narrates most of the action. He is smarm incarnate, completely convinced of his own intelligence and shallowly unburdened by guilt or conscience. By giving the film over to this jerk – who it should be said is played to utter perfection by Gosling – the tone of the piece feels off, and the emotional beats the filmmakers work toward do not land the way they otherwise might.

It is commendable that McKay has made an enjoyable film out of a fairly dry topic. You will likely hear of the repeated gimmick of using popular or attractive celebrities to explain complex banking and investment terminology. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath is a particular highlight, as is Selena Gomez at the blackjack table. It is all well and good, and it sure is a lot of fun, but something about the approach just does not sit right with me.

The reality is people lost their homes, their pensions, and their lives. The entire world only now is starting to claw its way back out of the abyss. This was wanton destruction perpetrated by lowlife scum who got away with it because they did not use guns or knives but power and influence. They are the worst kind of criminal. By serving up its information with a side of humor, The Big Short hopefully will help a lot more people understand what really happened to the economy almost a decade ago, but I have trouble laughing along with any of it. The only thing I feel is anger.

See it? Yes.

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