Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Movie Review: "The Big Short"

I would have liked to have been part of the pitch meeting for this movie:
"There's this book about the housing crisis of 2005 and how it decimated the world economy, and how a few people in the financial world saw it coming and made it big, despite everyone thinking they were crazy. We should make a movie about that. Oh, and let's make it a comedy."
However it did happen, the end result was that Adam McKay's The Big Short is a tremendously thought-provoking, occasionally hysterically funny, slightly confusing yet utterly well-done film, part character study and part meditation on the greed-is-good mentality that kept the U.S. economy afloat for far too long.

Dr. Michael Burry (a shaggy-haired, shorts-wearing Christian Bale) is an eccentric hedge fund manager who spends hours if not days sequestered in his office, walking around barefoot, air drumming and pondering the financial world. While doing some analysis, he comes to the conclusion that the U.S. housing market is a sandcastle waiting the arrival of a big wave. Given the autonomy he has within his company, he proceeds to go to several major banks and bet against the housing market, investing millions of dollars for when it fails. The banks think he's utterly crazy, and are more than happy to agree to his proposal. Everyone, even his own investors, think Burry is crazy, especially since the crash (if it happens) is a few years down the road, and the fund must pay out millions waiting for that to happen.

Meanwhile, cocky banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) of Deutschebank gets wind of Burry's scheme and wants in on it. He connects with Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an angry, idealistic fund manager who runs an independent fund under the auspices of one of the larger banks. Mark is struggling with his own emotional issues but is tremendously interested in exposing the corruption inherent in the financial industry. Although he and his colleagues don't necessarily trust Vennett, they go into business with him, particularly after discovering how bond agencies are overrating a majority of mortgages.

Unless you're a financial whiz, or were fully immersed in the news when the crisis did occur, some or all of the plot of The Big Short may fly over your head. But while there's a lot of financial terminology bandied about, McKay tries to give it a humorous treatment, with explanations from Margot Robbie while drinking champagne in a bathtub and Selena Gomez gambling in Las Vegas, among others. But while the facts behind the plot may be difficult to decipher or follow, what works so well about the movie is the growing sense of doom and tension that pervades it, its humor, and the fantastic performances McKay shepherds.

Bale's performance is full of quirks, but underneath the cocky bravado and eccentric behavior lies the heart of a man who wonders if he really made the most colossal mistake based on a hunch. As his colleagues, employees, and investors pull away from him, you see a man struggling between doing what he's fairly certain is right and what is better for his clients. He so fully occupies this part you forget that this is the same guy who played Batman.

While Carell's performance is a little closer to the characters he has played in other films, he still brings a great deal of complexity to the part. Mixing anger, bravado, and righteous indignation with emotional fragility, I found his performance stronger than nearly any other dramatic role he has had, particularly his Oscar-nominated turn last year in Foxcatcher. Gosling is at his smarmy, cocky best, sometimes speaking directly to the audience, sometimes snarling, sometimes pondering the enormity of the situation he's found himself in.

What sticks in my mind most about The Big Short beyond the things I've already mentioned are the quietly powerful moments when the characters realize that in order for them to succeed and achieve what they're aiming for, a multitude of lives will be ruined, and our economy might not recover. No one in the movie takes that lightly, even as they're making millions of dollars.

Many are considering The Big Short one of, if not the, leading contender for Best Picture at this year's Oscars, both for its filmmaking and the timeliness of its message. While I don't think it was the best movie of the year, it's certainly one that merits some recognition, and perhaps a second viewing to cut directly to its heart without getting lost in the jargon.

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