Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Reel Review: THE BIG SHORT

Making a movie about real-life events is fairly easy; the facts are there and chances are someone already wrote a book on the event, so filmmakers already have one-half of the writing done. But life isn’t simple, and when it comes to adapting a super-complex story involving stocks and finances, a movie can easily get bogged down, confusing, and boring. Such is the task for director Adam McKay and his attempt to dramatize the financial crisis of 2008 stemming from the crash of the housing market.

Eccentric financial analyst and trader Michael Burry (Christian Bale), discovers that the U.S. housing market is unstable, and even though no one believes him, creates a credit default swap market, which would allow him to bet against the housing market and cash-in on boatloads of money. His idea leaks to Jared Venett (Ryan Gosling), an arrogant trader who recruits hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join him. Meanwhile, two young upstarts (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) also discover the plan and recruit a retired investor (Brad Pitt) to get them in on the deal of century.

THE BIG SHORT is mostly a story about greed and how it messes everything up; from governments to families to financial institutions to normal everyday people on the street. The fairly large cast of characters spend most the film examining and deconstructing the extremely complicated and dense strategies of the housing market, and when they realize they can make millions if not billions of dollars over the impending crash, they are then thrown into the moral question of whether not they should. After all, when the crash happens, people lose their homes and jobs…and they have an opportunity to walk away with a fortune. The variety of characters react in different ways, and director Adam McKay, mostly known as a comedy director, fleshes out the reactions in very human ways.

As the characters explore the shaky and shady ways of the housing market, as does the audience…and it is not an easy mess to figure out. McKay doesn’t bother to dumb anything down and leaves the authentic jargon intact, but does what he can to simplify it for his audience; most of whom, even homeowners and stock traders, would likely never have heard most of the gobbledygook. McKay uses visual aids such as building blocks, card games, and metaphors, and even stops the movie dead in its tracks for a celebrity cameo to explain things (Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath, for example). For the most part it works…not because the explanations are understandable (they’re not), but because the way the characters react to the situations which sells it. We will never understand what just happened to someone’s stock option, but we can certainly tell from their emotions if it’s good or bad.

McKay keeps the mood and pacing very brisk and light. As a dramedy, it’s very funny without going over-the-top or relying on unnecessary slapstick or endless F-bombs. Characters break the fourth-wall and speak directly to the audience on occasion, and although it works it doesn’t seem to happen enough; McKay only seems to do it when he gets stuck.

Acting is superb and is dominated by Christian Bale and Steve Carell. Both are quirky characters which the actors vanish into. Ryan Gosling finally sheds his blank-stare style of acting and creates a character we’d love to hate, and Brad Pitt is just kinda there. Marisa Tomei pops in as Carell’s character’s wife and is her usual cute and charming self.

THE BIG SHORT in broad strokes takes a long hard look at not just greed in the country, but in the overall world, and how it constantly effects our overall culture. McKay exposes a lot of the shitty things done by Wall Street, the banks, and the U.S. government, making his film required viewing for anyone eager to learn about exactly what happened in those turbulent days of 2008 that the networks couldn’t even explain. If McKay makes one error it’s the glossing-over of the little people who were hurt the most in the crisis, as he focuses mostly on the people who were at the top of and in the middle of it all. There’s not much heart or empathy to be had here. It’s a minor gripe, as THE BIG SHORT is much too captivating to crash over one issue.


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