Af­ter ‘Wolf,’ the other films feel sub­prime

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - GO SEE - By John Bei­fuss

“The Big Short,” which opens Wed­nes­day, might be de­scribed as a fact­based, all-star heist com­edy about the ec­cen­tric and vi­sion­ary un­der­dogs who legally ex­ploited a U.S. bank­ing sys­tem built on “fraud and stu­pid­ity.”

Its he­roes — or anti-he­roes, al­though the movie doesn’t treat them as such — are de­scribed in the script’s nar­ra­tion as the “out­siders and weirdos” who rec­og­nized “the gi­ant lie at the heart of the econ­omy.” This en­abled them to profit by the mil­lions and mil­lions from the 2007-2010 fi­nan­cial cri­sis caused by the burst­ing of the hous­ing bub­ble, which th­ese men (yes, they’re all men) an­tic­i­pated through the smart anal­y­sis of fi­nan­cial data; the on-site in­ves­ti­ga­tion of sketchy hous­ing devel­op­ments (when an un­sold Florida McMan­sion has an al­li­ga­tor in the swim­ming pool, it’s prob­a­bly worth less than its mar­ket price); and, ap­par­ently, an un­canny sen­si­tiv­ity to the econ­omy’s vi­bra­tions.

Adapted by writer-di­rec­tor Adam McKay and writer Charles Ran­dolph from the 2010 best-seller (sub­ti­tled “In­side the Dooms­day Ma­chine”) by non­fic­tion spe­cial­ist Michael Lewis (“The Blind Side”), “The Big Short” is filled with terms and con­cepts ex­pected to con­fuse or alien­ate the av­er­age moviegoer: CDO (col­lat­er­al­ized debt obli­ga­tion); credit de­fault swap; sub­prime loan, and so on. To make the medicine go Chris­tian Bale as Michael Burry is part of the large, im­pres­sive ensem­ble of ac­tors in “The Big Short,” based on the non­fic­tion book by Michael Lewis.

down, McKay — known for his Will Fer­rell col­lab­o­ra­tions, in­clud­ing the two “An­chor­man” films — ap­plies cin­e­matic sweet­ener by the cat­a­pult-sized spoon­ful.

The large, im­pres­sive ensem­ble cast is headed by such at­trac­tive and/ or wel­come fig­ures as Chris­tian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. The struc­ture is in­tended to ap­peal to the al­leged short at­ten­tion

span of the mod­ern moviegoer; the rov­ing hand­held cam­er­a­work apes the docu-style of “The Of­fice” (Carell’s alma mater), while the rest­less edit­ing show­cases hu­mor­ous mon­tages built with im­ages of Brit­ney Spears, the Blues Broth­ers and lit­tle Pearl (the hi­lar­i­ous tot from McKay’s short, “The Land­lord”). Char­ac­ters some­times speak di­rectly to the cam­era, as McKay in­ter­rupts the story to al­low a guest celebrity to de­fine a com­pli­cated eco­nomic con­cept in lay terms. For ex­am­ple, when “sub­prime loans” be­come im­por­tant to the plot, nar­ra­tor Gosling an­nounces: “Here’s Mar­got Rob­bie in a bub­ble bath to ex­plain.” Cut to the sexy blond ac­tress, up to her neck in froth, drink­ing Cham­pagne and offering bank­ing in­for­ma­tion.

Many movie­go­ers first be­came aware of Rob­bie in Martin Scors­ese’s black com­edy “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and that 2013 mas­ter­piece about Wall Street cor­rup­tion con­tin­ues to make sub­se­quent movies on the theme seem, um, sub­prime. Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Wolf” char­ac­ter was charis­matic and en­ter­tain­ing, but al­ways ob­vi­ously a heel, as well as an em­bod­i­ment of run­away Amer­i­can ex­cess and vul­gar­ity. In con­trast, the hedge fund man­agers, fi­nan­cial an­a­lysts and hope­ful “garage band”-level traders who move the money around in “The Big Short” re­main sym­pa­thetic, even at their most smug (hello, Ryan Gosling); view­ers are ex­pected to root for their suc­cess against the crim­i­nal bank­ing in­dus­try, even though that suc­cess is in­di­vis­i­ble from a fi­nan­cial col­lapse that will ruin or at least cause hard­ship to mil­lions of peo­ple around the world. The movie ac­knowl­edges this con­tra­dic­tion when the Brad Pitt char­ac­ter chas­tises his in­vest­ment part­ners for their glee, but it nev­er­the­less works to trans­form this story of dis­as­ter into some­thing breezy and fun and — worse — ab­stract, to­ken shot of a fam­ily re­duced to liv­ing out of its car notwith­stand­ing.

The blame for this fail­ure of nerve must go to McKay, whose film will serve as a tes­ta­ment to the per­ils of facile dig­i­tal edit­ing. “The Big Short” is never dull, and the right­eous anger ex­pressed in its script (but soft-ped­aled in its stag­ing) is cer­tainly jus­ti­fi­able. But though the movie as­pires to be hip and ir­rev­er­ent in its non­tra­di­tional ap­proach to chal­leng­ing ma­te­rial, its at­ti­tudes are thor­oughly con­ven­tional, even sen­ti­men­tal. (The Carell char­ac­ter’s brother com­mit­ted sui­cide; does this “ex­plain” his anger?) For a much more worth­while McKay ex­plo­ration of Amer­i­can cul­ture, I’d sug­gest “Tal­ladega Nights: The Bal­lad of Ricky Bobby.”


Left to right: Rafe Spall as Danny Moses, Jeremy Strong as Vin­nie Daniel, Steve Carell as Mark Baum, Ryan Gosling as Jared Ven­nett and Jef­fry Grif­fin as Chris in “The Big Short.” The re­al­life char­ac­ters made mil­lions of dol­lars off the burst­ing of the...

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