Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Big Short: A Review (Review #794)


It's been nearly eight years since the economy all but collapsed.  The Big Short, a film about how things got so far and about those who saw it (and made a tidy profit themselves off it), I found a little too smug for its own good.  It was a good movie, but something about it put me off of it for almost the whole running time.

Four different groups (with only two working in tandem) foresee that the housing market, once a rock-solid investment, is going to go under thanks to a near-total collusion between banks, credit ratings agencies, Wall Street in general, and the federal government.  First to see this is Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who has a glass eye, loves heavy metal, and walks around his firm wearing t-shirts and occasionally shoes.  He takes his investors money to bet against the mortgage companies he foresees will collapse due to their excessively generous loans which they know cannot be paid back.  The banks, seeing him as a nut, eagerly take his money, confident they won't have to pay back.

Enter Jared Vennett (avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling), a trader who hears of Burry's mad idea...and realizes it's accurate.  He too wants in, and follows Burry's lead.  In this, he accidentally contacts the firm of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an angry man who finds everything about the economy and life in general to be immoral.  Baum sees for himself that the market cannot sustain the weight when he and his team travel to Miami to look into one particular bad set of mortgages.  They are all generally appalled that loans are handed out to people who clearly cannot afford them (two lenders bragging about how they target immigrants, and five loans given to strippers).  The thing is going to collapse, and Baum decides to go in on this if only to show how rotten the whole thing is.

Last is eager Colorado newbie traders Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who discover this scheme by accident.  They get their mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them get the money to put chips in the game.

Each of them starts playing a long game, convinced that by 2007 things will begin to fall apart.  Baum in particular is appalled at the greed, ineptness, and general thievery of the whole affair, culminating in the groups all coming to Las Vegas for a convention where people think the good times will keep on rolling, but finding instead the beginning of the end.  It isn't until Rickert points out to his two protégés, too enthusiastic about their killings, that what will happen is that the American economy will completely collapse, leading to other people's lost jobs, lost homes, even perhaps lost lives.

The collapse comes a little later than expected, thanks to the collusion of the credit ratings agencies who essentially sell out, giving AAA ratings to lumped-together mortgages that are really worthless.  When the collapse finally comes, Burry, Baum, and Geller/Shipley reap in fortunes (Vennett as well), but only Vennett remains unfazed by it all.  The others struggle with the fact that they know their fortune came from the misery of people who were robbed by Wall Street and that worse, those who did this got away with it.  Baum in particular does not want to profit but to serve as a prophet, refusing to sell until the very end, when he knows it's all over.

What kept me from being as enthusiastic about The Big Short as my fellow critics is director/co-writer Adam McKay's various decisions about the filming style.  McKay has characters break the fourth wall (avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling in particular, but there were others).  McKay has avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling introduce us to 'guest stars' to explain complicated financial concepts.  For example, to explain subprime mortgages and all the nonsense that goes with it, we turn to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath drinking champagne.  To explain synthetic CDOs (collateralized debt obligations), we go to Dr. Richard Thaler (father of behavioral finance)...and Selena Gomez at a blackjack table. 

Somehow, these two decisions put me off The Big Short.  There just seemed to me to be something smug about all this, as if to tell the audience 'look, we know you are generally stupid, so we will make things easier for you by introducing people you know in overtly ridiculous situations to dumb it down for you'.  Obviously, people will only understand subprime if you get a hot woman in a bubble bath to explain it to you.  There is no other way to make it palatable. 

Perhaps I found this manner smug, condescending, even a bit cruel because the financial crisis is not a subject to laugh at for me.  Let me rephrase that: you can make a comedy out of the horrors of the meltdown, but can you be so blatant about it with things like Robbie in bubbles?  If they had been done sparingly, perhaps.  Three times...maybe not so much.

That was to me already weak, but McKay's decision to go for some sort of faux-documentary only made The Big Short look like an unhinged episode of The Office.  There is an obvious effort to make this look 'authentic', and that is attempted by moving the focus and by adding videos and clips that are hit and miss.  Playing Crazy while we hear of the fleecing of immigrants is a bit obvious, but the worse is when Baum finally opens up about his brother's suicide (which has haunted him for some time).  The audio gets drowned by music, and I simply don't understand why McKay went this route.

I think of all the education that I missed...
There was one moment of cleverness that I did admire (intentional or not).  That was in Melissa Leo's sole scene as Georgia, the Standard & Poor's ratings agency agent who is both metaphorically and literally almost blind to the oncoming storm. 

As we were getting a strange balance of comedy with drama the performances went in one direction: one-note.  They were well-hit notes (Bale as bonkers, Carell as angry, avant-garde actor Ryan Gosling as sleazy).  It doesn't take away that we rarely really got a good look at a whole person, just a series of figures that needed to be a particular type.

It isn't until near the end, when we see the collapse, that we shift tone to what I think I would like to have seen: a more straightforward drama, one that didn't need silly side notes like a bubble-bathing Robbie or a teen pop star explaining economics.  The horrors of the meltdown come into sharp focus, but at the same time, given how this group had little to no problem making money out of what they knew would be the misery of others, I can't fully embrace their turns of conscience.

In fact, that appears to be my difficulty with The Big Short.  I can't fully embrace it. Its efforts to be amusing make me wonder whether the tone fit the story.  I could never shake the sense of a certain smugness, a certain sense of superiority over the viewer the film seems to have.  Is it a good film?  Yes.  Is it one I would come back to?  No.    


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