Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Big Short (***)

Directed by Adam McKay


Previous to The Big Short, Michael Lewis books had been the basis of only half of a good movie: the terrible The Blind Side and the Sorkin baseball movie that wasn't really about baseball, Moneyball. I'll admit that trailers for The Big Short did little to enthuse me, nor did the placement of Adam McKay, Will Ferrell's favorite director, at the helm of the story. But it's produced by Brad Pitt, and the movie star has far surpassed his pal George Clooney as a surveyor of juicy projects who uses his star power to get made. It also just seems like Pitt has better taste. McKay combines with Charles Randolph to craft Lewis' book into one of the best screenplays of 2015, a sharp, funny, informative piece of enraging cinema blistering through hifalutin economic jargon to get you to the point that really matters most: you should be very, very pissed off. A multi-pronged narrative tells the tale of a handful of educated white males who saw the world economy trending down when everyone else saw it in a perpetual upward trajectory, too blinded by money to foresee any trouble. Lewis' book is in part about the nature of a person who zigs when the rest of the world zags (his book also has the audacity to include a female), but the script from Randolph and McKay is a manic ensemble piece, as we see the various reactions one can have when collecting a piece of information only a few people know. The Big Short is striving for the mania of Paddy Chafefsky's Network while trying to pull off the whooshing filmmaking of Scorsese. The film falls short in those regards, but it is a fierce dark comedy, filled with strong performances from a terrific stable of actors.

There's a lot of talk in the film about certain concepts pertaining to the American housing economy which includes the very important buzz phrases "subprime loans" and "collateralized debt obligations", but I'd do a poor job explaining and I'd rob you of the incredibly charming way in which The Big Short chooses to explain itself. Needless to say, the housing market, which had always been seen as the one safe bet in the economy, was built upon a house of cards, and nobody could see it coming. That is, except one man, Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a former neurologist and current eccentric who manages a major hedge fund. With his numbers telling him that a market collapse is not only possible, but actually highly probable, he makes a daring move: he wants to "short" the loans. This is lamen for a "credit market swap", which is econ-snob for placing bets that a certain housing loan will default. Burry invests over a billion dollars in these shorts, frightening his investors who can't possibly understand what Burry is seeing years down the line. How can the shoe-less, death metal-listening Burry be right and Alan Greenspan be wrong? Word of Burry's actions find their way to Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a Wall Street trader who decides to dip his own toe into the credit market swap game. After an accidental wrong number, he gets in touch with the office of Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a self-righteous hedge fund manager with an ax to grind and a very poor temper. When Baum does his own research on the possibility of a housing bubble, he can't resist but partnering with Vennett on a deal. Make money while humiliating the pompous, greedy bankers? What could be better?

The last group that Big Short checks in with are a couple of young, eager investors looking to hit it big and attain their ISDA in New York City. Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) ran an investment firm in their garage and raised $30 million. This still doesn't get them a seat at the table in Wall Street, but when they happen to see a copy of Vennett's flyers pronouncing the opportunity of credit market swap practices, they see a new way in. Charlie and Jamie are nobodies, but Jamie's former neighbor in Boulder, Colorado is Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a retired banker with a nihilistic view of the entire world, but especially the world of investing. The enthusiastic duo convinces Ben to dust off his laptop and help them invest against these catastrophically bad loans. Despite his reservations about the business, Ben can see the possibilities behind their idea. As the 2008 market collapse comes closer and closer, pressure begins to build for all these men about the fruits of their labor. For Dr. Burry, he has flustered rich investors who have absolutely no interest in waiting for a big payday that seems to be nowhere in sight. For Baum and Vennett, they sweat derisively as these atrocious loans continue forward with excellent AAA ratings despite the market's nosediving numbers. For Rickert, Geller and Shipley, they must choose the exact right moment when to sell their shorts in order to get the biggest payday. But what if the market bottoms out and they miss their chance? These men are all playing big hands here, dealing mostly with the homes and pensions of regular middle-class poor people, and as the fall comes to a head, they are forced to face the reality that an economic meltdown is much more than their big payday.

McKay has directed several hits, all starring Will Ferrell, and despite my own nostalgic love for Ferrell, only Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is actually a good movie. Those films aren't really directed as they are staged around a collection of solid improvisational performers. There's no preparation for what McKay gives us in The Big Short, which is very well-made and directed with great certainty. His hand in the film's extraordinary script only helps his superb handle on the film's eruptive tone which is manic satire at one moment and then somber drama the next. A motif runs throughout the film in which random celebrities come in to explain complex economic terms. They range from Australian actress Margot Robbie to celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to best-selling economist Richard H. Thaler. It's a cheeky little device that takes the movie from sarcastic to bombastic, and plays a hand in McKay's overarching theory of the American economy: it's a joke, a rigged game meant to save the greedy wealthy and consistently punish the hard-working poor. Not to say that The Big Short is black & white about its views of class, but the movie has absolutely no respect for the authorities who told the American public to keep believing when doomsday was just around the corner. There are moments when the film becomes a little too meta for its own good - McKay has never taken a good concept and used it in moderation - but the film is clever nonetheless. These three stories never have any direct interconnection, and yet McKay (along with editor Hank Corwin) makes them all feel so cohesive, the beats interlocking into a sledgehammer of rage.

Christian Bale can often be a handful, he's got this insatiable, passionate style that can give you something brilliant like American Psycho, but more often results in maudlin screen work like his performances in the Dark Knight trilogy. Bale isn't doing much as Burry, and has nearly all of his scenes in one office. Yet, it might be one of the Welsh actor's best performances, a testament to what makes Bale so great. The small ticks, the subtle glimpses of anxiety. Burry has Asperger's Syndrome, and also has a glass eye from a childhood injury. His brilliance alone is enough to alienate those around him, but he isn't helped by his circumstances. Bale plays Burry as a man painfully aware of his shortcomings, and yet tragically unable to overcome them. That he's able to translate all of this in a single office is impressive indeed. The storylines around Burry's are not as grounded in their locations, and Carrell, Gosling, Magaro and Wittrock are given more action and dialogue to work with. Carrell and Gosling (who proved to have good chemistry in 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love) work well together here, Carrell's indignant everyman rubbing up against Gosling's self-interested Wall Street suit. As the eco-conscious, germ-intolerant Rickert, we get the perfect Brad Pitt performance, a sober meditation that's more personality than character. That Pitt's Rickert is the first person to point out the ethical implications of credit market swap is a stroke of genius, a perfect use of a movie star to really nail a line of dialogue. The Big Short is a well-acted, well-written, well-directed studio film about an important topic. The movie boasts about explaining aspects of the market collapse that the everyman couldn't comprehend, but its not condescending. Its sympathies are clear. The film's ending paints shades of tragedy about America and its future - no one was really punished for their actions; that is, except the American working man. That's the person McKay is hoping will see this film, and I hope they do too.

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