Friday, November 13, 2015

The Big Short (AFI FEST 2015)

Writer/director Adam McKay is outraged that banks got away with tanking the world economy, and by the end of The Big Short, you will be, too.

The Big Short
Writer/Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt

An adaptation of Michael Lewis' (Moneyball) nonfiction book "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," the film tracks the few men who see the imminent collapse of the economy coming before anyone else. There's Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the heavy-metal loving hedge fund manager with a glass eye and a serious lack of social skills. In 2005, he pores through thousands of bundled loans and comes to the conclusion that the housing market — always thought to be rock solid — is going to start to crumble in 2007. So he bets against the banks for over a billion dollars, scaring his investors and drawing a lot of attention on Wall Street. Deutsche Bank trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, who breaks the fourth wall and narrates the film) notices, and sees the potential in Burry's ideas. Through the magic of a wrong number, he ends up going into business with Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a perpetually angry funder with a strong sense of justice, a loud mouth, and a traumatic past. Also in the mix are Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), two upstarts from Colorado who recruit former Wall Streeter Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them get a seat at the big boys' table so they can bet against the system as well.

Considering how convoluted the ins and outs of the subject matter can be, simply trying to explain exactly how the crash happened can be tough, and even though McKay may not always succeed, he uses a number of techniques to make his case, including the brilliant and hilarious use of celebrity cameos. Every time Vennett introduces a concept deemed too tough for the regular moviegoing crowd to understand, he briefly stops the movie and has a different celebrity pop up to explain that specific topic. (I won't ruin them for you — they're one of the movie's highlights.) These moments are sure to brighten up anyone who may have started to glaze over at all of the financial terms being thrown around. Outside of those few explanations, I often found myself not understanding exactly what the characters are talking about. Here's the thing about that — it doesn't matter. McKay does such a good job of communicating the gist of these economic ideas and allowing the audience to read the situations through his characters' reactions to things that you don't really need to grasp all of the minutia in order to follow the narrative arc or enjoy the movie.

The Big Short could be viewed as a companion piece to The Wolf of Wall Street, and though it doesn't revel in excess as much as Scorsese's latest opus, it at least brings the same manic energy. McKay employs an editing style different than any he's used before, intercutting quick clips of news broadcasts, music videos, popular songs, and still images of regular Americans both to show the passage of time and the people who are ultimately affected by the actions of these characters. (Though the constantly roving camerawork of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd nauseated me by the end.) 

The film builds to a crescendo of outrage as everything finally falls apart, with no consequences for the banks. Carell and Pitt's characters are the only ones who seem to understand that the fact that they've bet against the U.S. economy doesn't only mean that they'll make piles of cash when the system goes down, but that this is going to have global ramifications that put hard-working American taxpayers out on the street. The final few minutes are the gut-punch McKay has been building toward since the end credits of The Other Guys. The movie can admittedly feel a little chaotic at times, but you can feel McKay's indignation coursing just underneath the surface, pulling everything together and propelling the story toward its conclusion.

Bale is great (at this point in his career, I'm more surprised when he's not), working in isolation as he blasts music and scrutinizes computer screens (that glass eye effect is extremely convincing), though he vanishes from the story for a while as Carell and Gosling's characters take center stage. Gosling seems to really have fun with his character, a guy with an appalling haircut and the type of personality another character compares to that of a car salesman. Pitt brings some humanity to the movie with his character's outsider perspective, reminding the two young up-and-comers that real people's lives are in the balance. But it's Carell that stands as the film's moral compass, and he gets most complete arc of any character. Funny, energetic, and ferociously entertaining, The Big Short announces the arrival of Adam McKay as an incisive, dramatic filmmaker who shouldn't be viewed as just a "broad comedy guy" anymore.

No comments: