The Big Short

The Big Short movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Adam McKay; Charles Randolph 

Directed by: Adam McKay

When it was announced Adam McKay would be putting his comedic muse Will Ferrell in time out so he could make a film not only steeped in but specifically commenting on the 2008 financial crisis (and the events that precipitated it), I knew there could only be two possible outcomes.

This was boom or bust. The Big Short was either going to be an exciting new direction for the guy who gave us a NASCAR driver with two first names and the Channel 4 News Team    . . . or it was going to be an unbearable misfire, proving the limitations of a director who likes to keep things casual.

It turns out I was wrong. There was actually a third option, a middle ground — the dreaded ‘it was just okay’ territory where you’re not sure whether what you’ve just watched is something you’re going to care about by the time you get to your car. But The Big Short lingers in the mind for at least that long because you just can’t shake the weirdness. It is a weird experience; I mean, really weird. Not in a Rocky Horror Picture Show or Guillermo Del Toro kind of way, where weirdness is beneficial, even a signature.

It’s a film in which weirdness is just off-putting. Events are rooted very much in dramatic realism but tonally McKay prefers going for that whole meta ‘breaking the fourth wall’ thing that made Scorsese’s commentary on the wealth of Wall Street a couple of years ago oh so much fun. He douses character dialogue and interaction with an arrogance that would make Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby proud. And, okay, even Jordan Belfort. Key players are more caricatures than characters and they’re this way because McKay doesn’t want to be lecturing audiences with characters who aren’t fun and in that way, relatable.

It’s a film where strippers lament having to pay multiple mortgages and Ryan Gosling can almost pull off the fake tan and hairstyle á la Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. Christian Bale doesn’t have the gut or the really bad wig this time around though.

Working from a script written by Charles Randolph and himself, one based upon Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name, McKay zeroes in on three groups of finance geeks who predict the destabilization and eventual collapse of the national and global economy several years in advance, paying special attention to the precarious state of subprime mortgage loans. The borrowing of money was an issue further compounded by big banks’ frivolous selling of what are known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), ways of bundling together poor loans in a package those banks would sell to their investors as a way of transferring any responsibility of debt repayment.

Those key players probably could use some sort of introduction. There’s the eccentric Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) who is first seen in the film doing his homework on the health of the housing market in 2005. He’s the guy who realizes he too could profit immensely off of the blindness (or is it just ignorance?) of suits who don’t realize how faulty their investments actually are. He also doesn’t wear shoes in his office and blares loud music whenever he’s crunching numbers.

Sometime later a slithery, opportunistic investor named Jared Vennett (Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s idea and, realizing just how right he is, wants in. Vennett smells blood in the water and taps stock traders like Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join in on the action. Carell colors Baum as a self-righteous, idealistic man who’s cynical so far beyond his years the question has to be asked: what are you still doing here on Wall Street? His wife Cynthia (Marisa Tomei) repeatedly tells him he shouldn’t try to fix every problem in the world. Baum experiences a crisis of conscience when he realizes how much money there is to be made off of the greedy bankers’ investments, and also realizing the parallels between that reality and the white collar crimes that have been perpetrated to create this entire mess.

There are also two young hot shots who discover the credit bubble and are eager to gain from it. Otherwise . . . it’s back to living at home with mom! Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are seeking a way to establish their own names so they enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) — this is the wizened old fool who has been sickened by corporate greed and has sworn off of the trade — to help them short up (a.k.a. buy bonds cheap now to sell them for profit later) several high profile accounts.

I know, doesn’t this movie sound like so much fun? It is a credit to McKay and his entire crew that The Big Short maintains any semblance of energy whatsoever, as the story becomes far more bogged down by industry jargon than by the emotions this still raw subject matter is liable to generate in viewers.

Setting aside the inherent complexities of the story, The Big Short is just too much. It’s information overload, and on top of that it’s a whole lot of opinion flying in from all directions. Gosling’s character is entirely condescending and annoying — even more so than the dictionary definitions we must read occasionally on screen (McKay knows most people would be lost without them). Carell is a nervous wreck who challenges his own Michael Scott for most grating characters he’s ever played. Performances are otherwise, for the most part, not all that notable.

Somewhere buried deep inside this hodgepodge of statistics, dramatic license and comedic interplay there is genius. McKay embraces a challenging story with confidence that can’t be ignored, but just as unavoidable is the fact his dramedy is about as strange a concoction as I had presumed it would be, what with a cast that it is essentially split 50-50 in terms of comedic and dramatic talent. If you want to talk about big bailouts, The Big Short definitely benefits from its high-profile personnel.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 6.36.54 PM

Recommendation: An odd and mostly unsatisfying blend of comedy and dramatic realism, The Big Short could very well divide the Adam McKay faithful as it doesn’t quite offer the memorably quotable scripts from times past, but it does suggest the man can do more than just provide a couple of comedians a line-o-rama for 90-plus minutes. Fact-based story is ultimately bogged down by jargon and dizzying editing that makes the whole thing kind of a headache. Disappointing. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is strictly prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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15 thoughts on “The Big Short

  1. I’m in complete agreement. The mix of comedy and information was off-putting. However…. this is expected to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Go figure.

    • I really hope it doesn’t win. This would be most upsetting. lol. I guess you could say I admired the technique that McKay employed but I didn’t much like it, and it’s the first movie in a long while where I felt perfectly OK with getting up in the middle to go to the bathroom. haha

  2. Oh gosh, and the cast alone had me taking a closer look see. But… uhm… really? This is what they did with it? I don’t think I will be rushing out to see it anytime soon.

    • It pains me to say it, but The Big Short went in the direction of the weird and off-putting and, to be honest, condescending. I made a list of Top Ten Films I was looking forward to seeing from certain directors late last year. This one was on it, and I made a comment about how odd the pairing of director/casting and the material was. Haha. This was either going to be great or really not so great.

  3. Stellar review. I was interested to see it because of that amazing cast but from what I’ve read here and elsewhere, it sounds like a bit of a let down.

    • Thanks Vinnie. I will defend the cast and say they’re pretty great but I don’t know, this material is pretty damn boring. Going to this movie is like paying to go sit in a college classroom and be lectured, but not by a boring, typical professor. More like, some dude who is down-to-earth and reasonable, but he’ll still give you an exam before the end of the day. So really it’s pretty lame.

  4. Interesting read Tom. I’m going to give this a go when it’s out here because of the cast, and it sounds like they’ve saved this for you. I had the same reaction when I heard McKay was taking something like this on but I figure ‘good for him’ and am usually happy when directors or actors take on different things even if it doesn’t quite pan out. I enjoy his comedies and I guess he can always go back to that if the slightly straighter stuff doesn’t succeed.

    • Yeah i was certainly excited to learn McKay was stepping out of his comfort zone. I think I can call it a comfort zone at this point since he, up until now, always had Will Ferrell as a lead, an inane and possibly annoying premise to work with, and produced films that were so clearly just fun for everyone involved. ‘The Big Short’ feels different. It has some serious moments but on the whole this is one big comedy again. I was put off pretty early in this one I have to say. It’s frustrating that I can’t point to a specific cause but maybe I’ll go with this: you want a movie to take its subject seriously, but then the editing and the scene selections happen such that you don’t think the person who is making the movie gives a damn at all about what’s happening . . . . only about 45 minutes later to you start realizing that yeah, okay, the director is apparently taking this seriously, but he’s taken half the movie to get to a point where you kind of believe him. I don’t know. I’m not making any sense. This movie was a serious disappointment to me.

      • Interesting…and it’s just a shame given that I’ve not seen the film that I can’t really respond to what you say very well! (What you do say makes sense.)
        I wonder whether David O. Russell is a director that what you’re saying applies to. How serious does he take his subject matter? Is it supposed to be serious or is it supposed to be lighthearted? Difficult to straddle the two effectively.

  5. Ah, pity. I listened to a podcast where the hosts were completely divided on this. Personally this looks right up my alley but I guess it wasn’t for you mate! Happy New Year by the way!

    • I think The Big Short will ultimately end up doing really well. RT already has it pegged in the upper 80th percentile on the critics side and audiences have similarly been lapping it up. For me, I wanted to love it. McKay really tackles a complex story and issue and some parts of his signature comedic style can be found, but mostly this just feels like a cheap knockoff of the attitudes that prevailed in The Wolf of Wall Street. That movie had Scorsese at the helm, so of course it would work. We haven’t yet seen if McKay can handle full-on drama yet so, I call this kind of a test run. It’s a bit awkward but it’s not a full-on disaster either. I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself. I’d like to read your review after

  6. Good review Tom. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. I’ll be curious to read other people’s reviews too. This sounds like it could be another American Hustle, … a star studded cast, lots of nominations but when I get around to watching it, leaves me wondering what the fuss is about haha. 😀

    • Haha, that’s kind of the perfect way to describe this one. It looks very good but there’s a lot of surface gloss. I must credit McKay for tackling a project like this though. Very complex material that clearly isn’t easy to package to a commercial audience. He finds moderate success but I think I prefer his teaming with Will Ferrell more.

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