‘BIG’ COMES UP ‘SHORT’
After ‘Wolf,’ the other films feel subprime
“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...