Monday, December 14, 2015

THE BIG SHORT Is An Effective But Messy Rage Against The Machine


- There remains a lingering anger over the fallout - or lack thereof - from the financial crisis of 2008. How could it be that the banks and Wall Street ultimately emerged relatively unscathed, with almost no one facing repercussions or prosecution for their oftentimes illegal conduct? For many - myself included - the exact circumstances that led to the crisis, and the particular ways that bankers gamed the system and screwed countless Americans, remained murky. But THE BIG SHORT makes it its mission to explain to viewers just how big of a scam Wall Street pulled on the public in the years leading up to the crash. From Adam McKay - the director best known for over-the-top comedies like Anchorman - THE BIG SHORT channels the manic energy of McKay's previous films into a more serious and purposeful form of satire. The film wears the chip on its shoulder proudly, and its rage is infectious. To that end, it wholly succeeds at its goal of getting you angry, pissed-off, and demanding that someone be held accountable.

McKay directs the movie with a wild abandon, channeling a sort of Scorsese-on-acid vibe that injects the film with a sense of meta playfulness. I'm not 100% sure if it works though. One of the most distinct aspects of the movie is McKay's use of fourth-wall-breaking narration. Sometimes, it comes from characters in the film - like Ryan Gosling's slick, alpha-male investor. Sometimes though, it comes from tongue-in-cheek cutaways in which Margot Robbie, as herself, explains financial terms while taking a bubble bath. I give McKay points for trying something different, but the cutaways feel extraneous, and like a distraction from the main narrative. Additionally, they sort of cut away at the distance between filmmaker and subject matter in a way that's a little uncomfortable. I mean, people criticized Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street for glamorizing its hedonistic, predatory subjects - even though Scorsese's film was in fact a pretty biting critique. But imagine if Scorsese had broken the fourth wall in a way that undermined his own satire? That's sort of what it feels like McKay is doing here. Even as he skewers the sleazy machismo and excess of Wall Street, he also seems to sort of revel in it. How else to explain naked Margot Robbie used as a narrator? It's audacious and unique, and I sort of see what McKay is going for - but again, it almost makes it feel like McKay is approaching the movie as a guy who on one hand is happy to skew Wall Street, but who also wouldn't mind getting invited to their stripper-filled, coke-binging holiday parties.

All that aside, the real meat of the film is in its parade of colorful characters who each recognized the oncoming crash before most (or, at least, most who were willing to openly admit it was on the way). The three standouts to me are Gosling, Christian Bale, and Steve Carell - all three of whom are in absolute top form. Starting backwards, Carell is a scene-stealer - and pretty much steals the movie - as a tightly-wound banker who - based on Gosling's sales pitch - makes a big bet that a housing crash is imminent. There is no real moral center in this film, but Carell perhaps comes closest. If nothing else, he is the guy in the movie who, after having experienced personal trauma, now reaches the point of giving zero %$&#'s. He calls people on their bull$^&$ left and right, with nary a regard for being the crazy guy in the room. Gosling's hustler is looking to profit. So is Bale's eccentric genius - but mostly, he's wrapped up in his own head - lost in a maze of esoteric equations and data streams. But Carell is the guy who, though he wants to be right, what really drives him is a festering disgust with the lies that his peers tell and the lengths they are willing to go to manipulate and re-shape reality to their liking. It's a great, great performance from Carell. Gosling is really good as well - and incredibly funny. Bale, too, is fantastic. He is a shorts-and-tee-shirt guy in a world of custom-made suits - a head-banging outsider who seems to be the only guy in Wall Street circa 2008 not in it to be in it, if you know what I mean. Bale is often at his best playing a guy with a screw loose, and he nails it here.

For all of its flash, THE BIG SHORT actually ends up being a pretty legitimately educational movie. I came a way with a much better understanding of subprime mortgages and the housing market and all of the factors that led to the '08 crash. The movie's ADD style is actually its way of overcompensating for really getting into the weeds of the financial industry, and for serving as a fairly comprehensive overview of the banking world. I'm just not fully sure that the movie ever finds the human center of its story. Carell's story-arc is the only one that has a real *reaction* to the lies and corruption we're seeing play out before us. Bale's arc is that he's a quirky outsider proven right. Gosling's is that he's an opportunist whose risky bet paid off. And then there are the "garage" investors - played by Finn Wittrock and John Magaro (guided by a gliding-through-the-movie Bradd Pitt, as an investor turned zen hippie) - who defy expectation but who never really grow as characters or as people. And so, the movie works best when focused on Carell, but has a bit of an empty feeling when it centers on the other characters.

I think THE BIG SHORT is an important movie for the way it gets you invested in the details of what caused the '08 financial crash, and opens your eyes to the way the financial industry screwed people, profited from said screwing, and then ultimately and unfairly got off mostly scott free. But as a narrative, it falters in finding the right way to tell us this story in a way that works as a story. The point of the movie is clear and powerful, but the road to arrive at that point is sort of messy. THE BIG SHORT is the cinematic equivalent of a long and angry and slightly drunken rant.

Still, the film is a very interesting departure for McKay, and it's filled with some terrific performances, moments of real humor, sharp satire, and effective raging against the machine. It's maybe the best campaign ad for Bernie Sanders of 2015. And it's a movie well worth checking out.

My Grade: B+

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