Monday, February 8, 2016

The Big Short

The Big Short had a lot of stuff working against it as I entered the theater. I'd not been excited by the trailers. It was directed by Adam McKay, whose previous films were all Will Ferrell vehicles, and as much as I like those movies he was obviously going to be out of his depth when trying to tackle a drama about the recent housing and world financial crisis. McKay had assembled a terrific cast: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, I even saw the ageless Marisa Tomei in the trailer. Yet I wasn't excited to see the movie. But when it came out, it inexplicably got really good reviews and was nominated for a handful of Oscars, including big ones like Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and even Best Picture. That's not an immediate indication of quality, but it at least makes me want to check out a movie if it gets that kind of awards love. I was blown away by what I saw. This movie is intelligent, irreverent, entertaining as hell, righteously angry, and ultimately tragic and thoroughly disgusted in our system.

A bestseller by Michael Lewis (also the author of bestsellers Moneyball and The Blind Side), The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine has been adapted for the screen by Charles Randolph and re-written by McKay (credited as co-writers) and it's a very tricky adaptation. The movie shares plenty of similarities with Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, but where that movie cared little for the details of how common people got screwed over by Wall Street and instead focused on the monstrous (and often hilariously entertaining) behavior of its drug addled main characters, McKay wants to explain to you as best he can just exactly what happened and how. This may make it sounded dry and boring, but it isn't at all, it's quietly exhilarating. McKay wants us to understand the terms the banks and investors use, terms we think we don't understand simply because the system is designed to keep us thinking the banks are the only ones who understand what all that shit means. But as the crisis, and this movie, point out: the banks and investors often didn't really understand what the fuck any of it meant either. They just wanted you to sign on the dotted line and get out of their office. You're just a number in their own bank account.

There's really no point in trying to recap the plot, as the explanations become labyrinthine quickly. But the movie follows a handful of guys betting against the housing market when that seemed an insane investment. The housing market has always been one of the most stable in America, and these guys are investing millions of dollars betting that it will fail. This is all based on the work of Dr. Michael Burry (Bale), who simply sees an investment opportunity because he's crunched the numbers no one else has bothered to even really look at. Then guys like Jared Vennett (Gosling), Mark Baum (Carell), Ben Rickert (Pitt) and others are pulled into the crazy idea of making upwards of 200 to 1 returns on their investments.

Eventually, as we know, the market did collapse. It takes a while though, as McKay furiously shows us that Wall Street was propped up by the American system. It's almost too depressing to even break down how these banks lied to us, cheated us out of untold billions of dollars (or more), took people's homes, and yet the government did nothing but give them more money. Not even a fucking slap on the wrist. Not the breaking down of the banks, not letting them fail in the real capitalist free market way they should've failed, not taken over by the government, or even better regulated by the government. Just a disgusting hemorrhaging of money to save these people that wasted money over and over again.
Again, this is a tricky subject for a movie to tackle, and even trickier to do it well. There's humor here, but also anger and a ton of specialized terminology designed to keep people stupid (or at least feeling that way). McKay deserves a lot of credit for managing this large amount of information as well as it could've been managed. It's a dense movie, but he teaches us what some things mean, gives us metaphors for understanding other things better, and never insults our intelligence. Also, as a narrative storyteller, he never gets bogged down in too much talking, always keeps us going going going, in the best way possible. The movie is very talky, but it's made so engaging in the writing and acting that we welcome the dialog.

McKay doesn't let us off either. The movie is set up so that the big banks and Wall Street become the villains, so that we're almost glad when they start to fail. We have monsters to root against, and we and the heroes will benefit from the monster's death. McKay gives one of the key moral speeches of the movie to Brad Pitt's Ben Rickert. Ben helps two young investors, Charlie and Jamie (terrifically played by John Magaro and Finn Whitrock), make deals that will make them millionaires when the banks fail, the two kids start celebrating (and we celebrate with them). Ben unleashes his revulsion on the boys, pointing out that they're celebrating what is ultimately people losing their homes and lives, telling them about how much higher the death rates become during economic crisis times. He points out that they're cheering for the demise of the lives of others, simply because it will make them rich. Afterwards, Charlie and Jamie, admirably, take it upon themselves to try and use the media to then warn the public about what is going to happen, only to get stonewalled by the same system that allowed the banks to do what they did in the first place.

The actors really help elevate this great movie. Christian Bale is the one up for an Oscar, and he's quite good in the role of the one eyed, Asperger's having Dr. Burry. But it's also the showiest, tic-iest role of the bunch. To me the kicker is Steve Carell. He's outspoken, angry, glad the banks are going to fail after years of lying to everyone and happy to make a profit off of their demise. But he also has years of pain inside of him, and he has a good heart. Carell holds the tragedy of the situation for us in the audience. There's a scene at the end, where he's talking to his lead analyst Vinnie (the also tremendous Jeremy Strong) that brought tears to my eyes with the disgust in the system that Carell displays wordlessly on his face and in his voice. This is the face and image I remember most days later. It's a powerful and important movie, thankfully, also very entertaining. But don't be surprised if you come out much angrier and maybe a little nauseous at what you now know.

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