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The Big Short
by Jordan Canahai
Adam McKay’s The Big Short offers a front-row seat in the financial arena in the months and years before the 2008 financial crisis, aligning itself with the perspectives of the handful of traders who saw that the housing and credit bubble was ready to pop, and got very rich as a result. Adapting Michael Lewis’s 2010 nonfiction book, McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph employ a handful of cinematic tricks to convey a story that essentially involves a bunch of guys who correctly bet that the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) shell game was about to go bust, then sat around raking in investor money as they waited for it to happen. Our protagonists open the film directly addressing the camera; a California-based hedge fund manager (Christian Bale) delivers an abridged autobiography while a New York–based Deutsche Bank trader (Ryan Gosling) establishes himself as the movie’s narrator, explaining how the cautious banking industry in the 1970s was transformed into something more akin to a high-stakes Las Vegas Casino racket in the following decades.
Gosling’s bank trader will play a central role in the drama to come, accidentally hinting to others the potential financial rewards to be reaped in the coming crisis—first a suspicious and short-tempered manager of his own Wall Street fund (Steve Carell), as well as two novice fund managers (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) newly arrived to NYC from a garage in Boulder. Gosling explains the vulnerability of CDOs to the film’s players (and the audience) using a tower of Jenga blocks as a visual aid, while frequently making asides to keep viewers up to speed whenever the insider jargon gets too heavy. Along with a series of montages from editor Hank Corwin, the film relies on a string of celebrity cameos in which personalities such as Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez address the audiences directly, breaking down the more intricate details of subprime mortgages and financial sector side-betting. They’re effective scenes, if a little condescending in their assumption that audiences can only be reached through celebrity (as if this wasn’t already obvious given the star power of the cast).
The many scenes of improvisational office interplay should be familiar to those who’ve seen McKay’s feature debut Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. The techniques that have served him well in that broader comedy, however, prove less effective with the more ambitious The Big Short. As with the news team in Anchorman, the personalities here are reduced to simplified caricature. Bale has his off-kilter glass eye squint and penchant for air-drumming to heavy metal. Carell has a bad haircut and generally barks through scenes. Gosling is snide and arrogant, constantly exuding an air of superiority. Brad Pitt (also credited as producer), plays the role of a progressive financial advisor with a passion for organic farming as if he’s performing a PSA. The individual shticks remain mostly static once established. McKay’s loose approach is well suited to the comedic interactions between the self-important suits, but his actors are left hanging during the film’s more dramatic moments. One also senses that certain scenes and performances have been haphazardly edited down or omitted. An emotional exchange between Baum and his wife (an underused Marisa Tomei) over the suicide of his brother seems particularly underdeveloped.
For a brief while The Big Short moves along with a carefree energy sorely missing in other Award-season “message movies”, and even when McKay’s approach lacks subtlety, the film is not without charm. It’s only when the recession finally hits in the film’s last half-hour that McKay proves to be out of his league, stringing together several scenes of speechifying while striving unsuccessfully for righteous pathos. After a breezy first hour the film takes a turn toward the tone-deaf and wrong-footed, coming off false in its concern for the average Americans most adversely affected by the economic crisis. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, another satirical expose into America’s corrupt financial system, as well as one of the best films of the last few years, unabashedly whisked viewers along and implicated them for enjoying the ride. McKay merely flatters, safely placing audiences in the camp of scrappy outsiders who perceived the lies at the heart of the American economy that others would choose to ignore. While I can’t fault a film for attempting to clarify the financial crisis to a mass audience, The Big Short all too frequently coddles viewers, and though this might lead to success at the box office, the creative returns are ultimately underwhelming.
Watch the trailer for The Big Short
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