Film Review: ‘The Big Short’
SNL was where Adam McKay started directing comedic short films with Will Ferrell. He then rose to fame when they segued into movie comedies: “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” and “Step Brothers.”
McKay’s now segueing again, this time towards gravitas (sort of) with his new film, the entertaining, “The Big Short.’
He’s used a story about the American mortgage crisis of 2008 to get serious, but he’s not getting terribly serious just yet. It may be that he never will. As his wife Shira Piven said in a recent interview with the Epoch Times, “Adam is just wired to be funny.”
While “Short” leaves McKay a short step from true cinematic gravitas, it’s possible he’s just getting warmed up, and his wife will someday say, “Adam, I never knew thee!”
House of Cards
“The Big Short” explains how the U.S. housing market, which was always taken for granted as absolutely rock solid, very quickly became worthless.
Similar to how master trackers recognize when an owl is nearby from mice-prints dug deeper (due to sprinting) when they smell an owl about, so too were a select few finance-wizards able to detect exploitable weaknesses within the housing market, that no one else had an inkling were there. The film follows this motley crew who bet against the housing bubble just as it was about to pop.
And the Players Are:
A curly-haired Ryan Gosling narrates, as Deutsche Bank’s Jared Vennett, often breaking the fourth wall with much charming cynicism. He needs to talk to us directly, because quite a lot of explanation of insider finance terminology, rules, obfuscation, and trickery is necessary for finance laymen to comprehend this movie.
Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a socially inept, former doctor, who started working for investment firm Scion Capital. He’s got a glass eye, and enjoys air drumming to heavy metal. Round about 2005, Burry did extensive research into the housing market, discovered it to be vulnerable, and bet against it big time.
The word spread, and like anything innovative, the notion got roundly scoffed at first. But Vennett was shrewd enough to see the possibilities. He then brings in Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a sandy-haired, hedge-fund manager badly in need of anger-management therapy.
Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are two suburban small-timers, trading out of their garage. They also see the mouse-tracks in the housing market, spot the owl, and naturally want in on the action. They call up neighbor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), once a Wall Street Master of the Universe, who’d become disgusted with life in the fast lane, but decides to help these perceptive amateurs.
And so we see the initial blood in the water attracting sharks. Was I using a mouse metaphor? Sharks are better. No wait … wolves. Wolves of Wall Street. Any scavenger metaphor is apt when it comes the exploitation of the housing bubble.
If you’re a corporate lawyer working for, say, megalithic audit firm Ernst & Young, you’ll know what collateralized debt obligation and synthetic C.D.O.’s are, and this movie will be a piece of cake for you. If you feel you could benefit from a book entitled, “Housing Bubble for Dummies” (this reviewer could) you will need to see the film twice.
McKay, however, has the finance dummies among us firmly in his sights, and every once in a while he hauls us up to speed. Probably less out of compassion than necessity, and ultimately more because these artifices and side bars afford him a quick dip in the comedy pool.
For example, someone will say (regarding the legalese of a particular financial instrument), “Does that make you feel bored? Or stupid?” And then all of a sudden we get a visualization; a paint-by-numbers snippet from the Bubble-For-Dummies book, such as: “Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”
Huh? Yes—blonde actress Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) sits gorgeously among the bubbles, a glass of bubbly in her hand, and explains an aspect of the Bubble (subprime mortgages). It’s the, “Are-you-smarter-than-a-fifth-grader?” version. She then shoos us off to the next brain short-circuiting round of financial-minutia storytelling.
And again, just when your head can’t take it anymore, suddenly there’s chef Anthony Bourdain, who explains to us how a particular financial deal is like an aged fish soup, and, Selena Gomez … explains, um … something at a black-jack table? I needed another cameo—maybe of Justin Bieber—explaining what Selena Gomez was explaining. That would be the, “Are you smarter than a third-grader?” version. Is this helpful? Sort of.
In the End—It’s Serious
McKay, while not yet entirely in serious story-telling mode, would very much like for us to get seriously angry about all this. It’s certainly an anger-worthy topic. The problem is, you’ve definitely got bad guys. But instead of good guys—you’ve got worse guys.
So of course since what we all yearn to see, deep down, is a clear-cut fight of good against evil, given our choices, we end up rooting for the bad guys who are exploiting the worse guys.
We laugh it off when all is said and done and Ryan Gosling twiddles his forty-seven million dollar paycheck, and says, “I can feel you judging me. It’s palpable.”
This use of a fun, breezy storytelling mode (as opposed to one like “Spotlight”) may inadvertently allow “The Big Short” to come under the heading of Neil Postman’s book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.”
Is it responsible storytelling, to sugarcoat the bitter pill of the housing crisis that harmed a vast number of American families? This is ultimately a story about how unregulated, rotten-to-the-core capitalism allowed our banks, in cahoots with the government, to eat its own children. That’s just not funny, no how, no way.
But it’s a good start. Adam McKay has been a Hollywood heavy-hitter for a good while now. He’s a serious filmmaker, and he obviously cares. Chances are, on his next serious venture, he may back up the comedy showboating, jabbing and trash-talk with a gut-punch that breaks through our all-talk-no-action, minimally morally-outraged musings on Facebook, and shatters our collective complacency.
“The Big Short”
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Margot Robbie, Marissa Tomei
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 23
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5