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The Big Short

tn_bigshortbestpictureDo you remember the Will Ferrell movie THE OTHER GUYS, how the end credits were a big animated info graphic about the banking crisis? It connected to the scheme by the villains in the movie but seemed jarringly serious at the end of a cop movie parody from the director of ANCHORMAN where Ferrell carries a wooden gun, has an evil pimp alter ego and has a chief played by Michael Keaton who quotes TLC all the time and works a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond. That’s why it’s not completely out of the blue that its director Adam McKay has made his first non-comedy, THE BIG SHORT, which has been nominated for many awards including Oscars for best picture, director and adapted screenplay. This is not the classic funny-man-yearning-for-respectability-with-corny-Oscar-bait-movie gambit. This is a rage that’s been fighting to get out.

Based on the non-fiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Moneyball author Michael Lewis, the movie tells the stories of several small-timers and outsiders in the financial world who had the foresight to see that the housing market was built on fraud and was destined to collapse. They figured out a way to basically bet against the banks, who gladly accepted the offers because they believed their own lies. They thought these people were crazy and giving them free money.

mp_bigshortFull disclosure: I live in an apartment. Mortgages, stocks and sub-prime loans have never been part of my experience, and hearing about them is like Greek translated into Klingon to me, except more threatening. As my woman said after the movie, “That’s the only movie I’ve ever seen that made me glad to be poor.” But McKay makes a bold attempt to translate it all for humans. Ryan Gosling, as both a character and a fourth-wall-breaking omniscient narrator, tells us it’s designed to be confusing to keep us away. He brings in absurd celebrity guests to explain some of the concepts of the “credit default swap market” in layman-friendly analogies. To be honest I’m too much of a dummy even for the dummy version, but at least I could follow enough to not give up in frustration like it’s math homework. It’s a good technique.

If you follow McKay in interviews or social media you know he’s obsessed with politics, justice and social progress. But he’s even more into jokes. He co-created all of Ferrell’s best movies, and Funny or Die, and wrote many great Saturday Night Live sketches (Bill Brasky, Celebrity Jeopardy, the ad where Sam Waterston sells robot insurance to the elderly, the morning news show that descends into cannibalism when the teleprompter stops working). My favorite thing by him might have to be TALLADEGA NIGHTS, because it’s my most have-to-keep-watching-when-it-comes-up-on-cable comedy to date. To get an idea of his sense of humor, this is the kind of stuff he gets kids to say:

So thankfully he knew it was okay to inject his Serious Movie with a playful, anarchic spirit. It takes place between 2005 and 2008, and he reminds us of the times through impressionistic editing, flashes of media events and Youtube videos, set to song choices from Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” (both a period detail and a commentary on the proceedings) to John Ashcroft’s “Let the Eagle Soar.” In fact, the soundtrack is heavy on classic rock and metal, but also has Run the Jewels and The Pussycat Dolls and “Milkshake” by Kelis. At any moment it’s liable to slide into a documentary-style montage or the video for “Money Maker” by Ludacris. There are little glimpses of things that stay on just long enough to jog a memory and then disappear (including a brief shot of the then-hugely-popular Funny Or Die video where Ferrell McKay’s daughter plays a mean landlord). It makes perfect sense that editor Hank Corwin’s first film was NATURAL BORN KILLERS.

The characters are mostly weirdos, very funny performances but not too broad. Only while writing this did it occur to me that Steve Carrell is in both this and ANCHORMAN. Here he plays a rude asshole who is appropriately enraged by what’s going on and only finds out about this big short business because someone calls his office about it by mistake. He’s the most obnoxious character – at one point he interrupts a convention speaker to ask an accusatory question, then leaves to take a phone call, and Gosling turns to the camera to assure us that this really happened – but also the most moral. He’s genuinely furious about the little guy getting screwed and is trying to make things better. He may be the best person in the movie and also the one you would least want to hang out with.

Brad Pitt plays more of a quietly odd semi-retired financial guru who catches on thanks to young neighbors (John Magaro from MY SOUL TO TAKE and Finn Wittrock from NOAH and FINN IS JUST A NICKNAME, IT’S ACTUALLY PETER: THE FINN WITTROCK STORY) running a hedge fund out of a garage.

Gosling is different from all these guys. He’s a slick opportunist who hears about it and is smart enough to want in. He’s the bridge between the relatable guys and the stereotypical Wolf of Wall Street douchebags.

The Galileo of this shit, and my favorite character, is Christian Bale as Michael Burry, some kind of socially awkward (in real life he has Asberger’s) rock ‘n roll nerd who listens to loud music and plays with drumsticks at his desk while his brain figures out things nobody else has.

At first I thought Bale was doing some kind of cross-eyed thing, but the character turns out to have a glass eye, so I’m sure it’s a contact. But I wouldn’t put it past him to just act his eye into glass. He wears the most true-to-life ugly shirts ever on film. Not wacky loud shirts, just boring shirts for surf shops or guitars, washed way too many times, exactly the type of shirts that sit for years on Value Village racks because they have no kitsch or retro value, they weren’t even cool at the time and now they’re faded and gross.

Bale gets to be emotional and actorly, but also funny. Somehow he’s able to rise to the top of a great ensemble cast even though I’m pretty sure he spends the entire movie inside his office, with the exception of one cathartic scene where he pounds out a raging drum solo in his basement.

There’s kind of an air of these guys being the brilliant mavericks who cleverly gamed the system, a cross between an underdog biopic and a heist movie. It makes you feel a little uncomfortable because it makes them very likable, but they’re not trying to figure out how to warn people or save the day. They’re just exploiting the situation for their own profit. To their credit they start to feel ashamed as it becomes real and they’re benefiting from other peoples’ tragedy. Instead of applauding their cleverness the movie asks why the hell else nobody noticed. The answer, I think, is in the this-is-just-how-things-are attitude of the bankers and regulators they meet with as they’re researching the whole thing. Some are bros, bragging about ripping people off, the way a bad soldier might brag about some shitty thing he did to the locals. They can’t see beyond the status quo. This is how they were taught to do it. It doesn’t occur to them that it’s unsustainable.

I’m kinda surprised how good this movie is. It’s full of righteous anger, illuminating a crime we already know about, but helping us to understand it better, and reminding the country that the perpetrators still haven’t been punished and the system still hasn’t been fixed. But it’s also fun. It has a bunch of great characters and performances, good actors seeming to have a good time, many of them getting to play against type.

We’ll see on Sunday, but right now it even seems to have a shot at best picture, because it won the PGA award, it’s about an Important Topic and it’s very actor friendly. Obviously FURY ROAD is the actual best picture, but in a flawed and corrupt world blind to true beauty I’d be more okay with this winning than some of the other ones.

Here are the two things I hope come out of the popularity of this movie:

1. New regulations to prevent this sort of thing from happening again
2. Christian Bale becoming a regular in Will Ferrell movies

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 22nd, 2016 at 11:58 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “The Big Short”

  1. Ooooh, this sounds like more my kinda thing.

    *Checks multiplexes nearby*

    FUUUUUUUuuuuuuu…

  2. My wife and I felt the same, Vern. A lot of it was over my head but we got the gist: holy FUCK we need regulation to keep this kind of stuff from happening again. Because it’s just gonna keep happening otherwise.

    Overall, a good movie.

  3. Didn’t really care for this one. I really disliked the celebrity cameos, I get that McKay was trying to find a fun alternative to exposition dumps, but I found it kind of patronising and grating; it might have worked better if it were just characters breaking the fourth wall, or at the very least it would have been more fun if they had used celebrities who were era-appropriate. As a whole I felt it really suffered in comparison to MARGIN CALL, which I saw about a month earlier and dealt with (broadly) the same subject in a manner I found a lot more engaging and thoughtful. But I agree that Bale is great in it.

  4. I loved the film. What an offbeat cinematic hybrid of styles that somehow works (for me, at least.)

  5. This is favored to win one of the screenwriting Oscars.

    So yeah, the director of ANCHORMAN and co-writer of ANT-MAN winning an Oscar is an amusing thought.

  6. Yeah, I was surprised by how good this turned out to be.

    Surprisingly (for me), I ended up seeing a lot of the Oscar nominated films this year and, so far, they’ve all been pretty good. BRIDGE OF SPIES was probably the weakest, but was still very enjoyable. Looking forward to finally seeing ROOM this weekend.

  7. I also thought the exposition was a bit patronising — not in terms of their explanations, which were fine, but in the attitude that we’re not going to pay attention unless we’re bribed with a half-naked Margot Robbie. I still enjoyed it.

    The book is great, by the way. I’m surprised the film changed the names of all the main characters but Burry, because very little in the script was embellished. (In real life, Brad Pitt’s character was already partnered with the other two guys from earlier, and as far as I can tell his issues with answering phones were just made up for the movie. That’s about it.)

  8. “in a flawed and corrupt world blind to true beauty…”

    Too true. Too true.

    It was a good movie. Entertaining enough and angry enough at the same time. I do not know how we live in a world where the lessons that come from calamity are not learned and the whole cycle of shit just keeps going, driven by people too stupid to realize they are not as smart as they think they are.

    I wonder which Michael Lewis book is up for being adapted into a movie next.

  9. Man, I gotta see this, I’m still pretty steamed by the 2008 financial crisis myself because though my family thank God managed to not be impacted by it too much, in a way it totally knocked the wind out of American culture’s sails and it’s never really recovered ever since, America lost a lot of it’s cockiness because of it and I feel like people have been flailing looking for any little thing they can fix (like #OscarsSoWhite for example) instead of facing the music and looking at the bigger picture and fully grasping it’s implications, it happened almost 8 years but to be honest I feel like it may as well have happened yesterday for how relevant it still is.

    I also don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but I also fear that it set the stage for even worse things in the future, I mean the 1930’s for example was a decade of worldwide economic turmoil and we all know what that led to, could history repeat itself? Let’s hope not.

    Also I knew Adam McKay was involved with SNL but I didn’t know he wrote the Celebrity Jeopardy skits, holy crap, those are some of my favorites, I remember the Robot Insurance one as well and that was fucking hilarious too.

  10. Put it another way, I think after 9/11 many Americans held their breath and had a “wait and see” attitude, hoping that as crazy as things were things would soon return to normal, the financial crisis was when the writing was on the wall that things we’re not going to go back to the way they were in the 90’s, that the party was officially over.

  11. Crushinator Jones

    February 23rd, 2016 at 8:34 am

    There was no party in the 90s, and I worked for the tech industry for most of it. There was a lot of money going around and it was easy to get funding around ’98/’99 but that’s about it. The party happened in the 70s. Then the industrial base started dying and the skill work started paying well in the 80s. By the 90s, the skill work that didn’t involve tech was getting nailed as well.

    What 9/11 did was make America feel vulnerable again like it did in the 80s. I know some of you are too young to remember this but in the 80s you seriously lived with the knowledge that the Ruskies and the USA might decide to light each other up with atomic bombs and that if that happened you and everyone you loved was gonna flare like a box of matches. But then that went away with Gorbachev (gotta give that guy props) Throughout the 90s America felt fuckin’ invincible, the Commies lost and we had the nukes. Nobody was gonna fuck with us, we thought. There was a general kind of uneasiness about the end of the Willenium and what our place was in the world but that was it. Then the tech bubble popped, and then 9/11 happened and we collectively lost our mind. Nobody was “waiting and seeing” shit after that, we were ready to bomb some motherfuckers. Shit, the day the towers came down a couple of my co-workers were seriously talking about putting some mushroom clouds up in the Middle East and it wasn’t that outrageous.

    As for culture things actually “returned to normal” because I’m going to let you in on a little secret: this current culture of endless unwinnable wars is what a significant portion of America actually wants. Endless bombing, fighting, degradation, and humiliation for a significant portion of people that they deem “enemies”, usually minorities and liberals. Why do you think Donald Trump is winning? It’s because he literally comes right out and says “build a wall, kick out the Mexicans, torture the Arabs, cops should smash black people into the pavement” and so they don’t give a shit that he also supports Planned Parenthood, Social Security, tariffs, and all that shit. They don’t have an idealogy, they have an agenda. The agenda is to dominate, hurt and kill people they don’t like. And they’re winning…we’re currently bombing 7 countries, black people have been dis-proportionally hurt by the recession (and are also over-targetted by our draconian drug laws), we can’t get universal healthcare, our current leading “liberal” is a pro-war tool of the big banks. Good stuff.

  12. Crushinator Jones

    February 23rd, 2016 at 9:19 am

    Ok, got a little worked up there. Sorry.

  13. Anyway on to something more related to the subject: the reason the banks have fucked over the average person is because they have the government in their pocket, they can break the law with impunity, and they have the average person convinced that the work is high-skill “smart guy” work that takes a genius to do. The problem is I’ve worked in the finance sector (in a technical capacity) side-by-side with the bean counters and I can assure each and every one of you that financial work is not “hard” in the brainpower sense. It’s understandable and doesn’t take a genius to do. But it does have some very complicated interactions and it’s also extremely detail-oriented. In fact if anything I would compare the financial industry to the military: the love of acronyms to obfuscate shit to outsiders, the fact that the job is technically easy but logistically very difficult, it coming with a weird culture that you have to buy into in order to succeed. I haven’t seen the Big Short yet but I’m definitely gonna check it out even though I’ve read like 3 different books about the meltdown and Matt Taibbi constantly brings it up.

  14. Great review, and agreed with end sentiment entirely.

    Now, for the sake of being a useless pedant, the girl that played the landlord in that Funny or Die video is Pearl McKay — Adam McKay’s daughter, not Ferrell’s. That’s something I’ve seen reported wrong quite a bit.

  15. Crushinator Jones – I don’t understand what you mean, you say there was no party in the 90’s but then you say America “felt fuckin’ invincible”? That’s exactly what I’m talking about, America felt like it was king shit of the world after we won the Cold War but the one two punch of 9/11 and the financial crisis totally took that away and now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Americans are totally fucking losing their minds, the fact that Donald Trump is being taken seriously as a Presidential candidate is proof of that.

  16. Griff– Just to build off of what Crushinator wrote, the 90s seemed like it was a great time, because for a moment it looked like we had everything figured out. The only clear alternative to American style capitalism had collapses, so we figured we would double down on the free market. Sure, technology spurred investment into the internet and bolstered productivity, leading to relative prosperity. But we now know that most of the gains went to the top one percent.

    In our hubris, we also decided to deregulate Wall Street. Since Reagan, both Democrats and Republicans had veered right, and Bill Clinton also drank the cool aid. He repealed the Glass-Stegall Act. The Glass-Stegall Act was instituted after the Great Depression to separate financial (betting on Wall Street) and commercial (giving out mortgages and creating checking accounts) banking, so that if a bank makes bad bets, then its financial arm will fall without affecting its commercial arm. This helped create the too big to fail scenario that sunk us in the next decade.

    Obviously, this is just one issue among many, but I think it illustrates my point. The 90s seemed like a great time, but that just hid the much larger dysfunction that was going on in the economy. Our current economic problems were decades in the making, but people just weren’t paying attention.

  17. Crushinator Jones

    February 23rd, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    Griff, you’re right. Culturally it was a big party. I wasn’t being clear and was taking your statement to mean it was an orgy of Reagan-style capitalistic hubris for the regular guy. It really wasn’t. A lot of the trends you’re seeing now started in the 90s. I worked from ’92 on and I saw the noose tightening on a lot of people, including me. The word I would use to describe the 90s economy is “decline”.

    Also if you think “America has gone crazy” because they back Trump then you aren’t getting what I said. America has not gone crazy. A portion of America is getting exactly what they want, and what they want is endless violence and domination toward people they don’t like. There is a sizeable portion of people (in every country, this is not a uniquely American problem) that would happily put others into slavery (real or economic) and kill anyone who would threaten them in the slightest, and would feel great about it. They are completely 100% tribal and if you’re not in their in-group (which generally involves being a particular race, religion, or just not believing in their agenda) you are sub-human scum who deserve to be degraded and dominated. And those people aren’t going away. One of the most dangerous things you can think is that these fanatics have been defeated or are irrelevant by the march of progress. They are not. And unfortunately America was founded on capitulating to these people – the devil’s bargain was allowing them to degrade, humiliate, and kill African Americans in return for white freedom. That is a uniquely American problem, and why we have so much misery despite being awash in wealth.

    I would suggest you read Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine” because it discusses in detail how these people work (in a capitalistic consequence, but it can be applied to anything). They wait for some massive disaster (or the perception of disaster) and then they immediately push a radical agenda of “the free market” (aka opportunities for their rich cronies to fuck over desperate people) or military intervention (aggressive war against people who can’t attack us and have nothing to do with the people who did, see: Iraq) or some other horseshit while people are still reeling. Learn to spot when people are doing this – when people are basically finding excuses to justify shitting on other people – and you’ll go far.

  18. “A portion of America is getting exactly what they want, and what they want is endless violence and domination toward people they don’t like.”

    I would call that crazy but I see what you mean.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t really think there’s always been such a huge number of right wing assholes in America, the problem is middle America has been fed a steady stream of propaganda by outlets like Fox News for the past 15 years almost and they’re getting blood thirsty, this is part of human nature, true, but it’s getting worse in America, the sad irony is Obama has only made this situation worse though by no real fault of his own, just his very existence has been such a rallying point for every right wing stooge in this country for years now.

    I honestly believe we may be living in the twilight days of America as we know it, that there may soon be a split between the “Bible belt” and the rest of the country coming soon, you really think left wingers and right ringers can get along forever? We are quickly headed towards a total impasse between these two political forces.

  19. Crushinator Jones

    February 24th, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Griff, just a quick reply as I don’t have time for too much detail:

    America has traditionally been a very polarized country. You’re right that polarization is increasing, but it’s coming off period where it was unusually low. What we have now is much closer to the natural order of things.

    While polarized, there’s a huge amount of bipartisan stuff happening in Washington and it mostly concerns bombing the shit out of the rest of the world and demonizing poor people.

    Here’s essential reading for you re: Donald Trump. These two articles are easy-reading and I hope this helps make some sense out of the situation.

    Trump's victories aren't mysterious if you understand why people are angry | Jeb Lund

    The Republican frontrunner often complains that he’s been dismissed by the media. But it’s not him that the pundits are contemptuous of; it’s his supporters

    How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable

    He's no ordinary con man. He's way above average — and the American political system is his easiest mark ever

    Also, a reminder about the “twilight of America”: while this is a rough patch there have been periods in this country where cops literally shot protesters on the streets of NY, or a quarter of the population couldn’t find work and lived in destitution. And we bounced back. Don’t count us out yet.

  20. Crushinator Jones – You’re right, America shouldn’t be counted out yet.

  21. You know what makes an accidentally good double feature with The Big Short? Believe it or not – Cube, the Canadian horror movie I remember liking but didn’t remember much about. Turns out that they share alot of the same themes – how the faceless, unseen powers that be will always win by changing the rules and twisting what we thought was a predictable system in their favor, and how they do it with the help (witting and unwitting) of the little guy. And how those little guys will lie and justify to themselves that they’re better than those “other” complicit little guys, when they’re all actually cogs that make the evil system work. I actually don’t know if I would have picked up on the thematic similarities if I didn’t just watch one after the other, even though both have the distinction of having plots that revolve around impenetrable math (and both try to explain it to the viewer to no avail because it doesn’t really matter).

    Anyways, The Big Short starts a little shaky. The Natural Born Killers-aping editing feels like something better left in the 90s, and the first cameo (Margot Robbie) seems like some “look at me!” film school showing off. Introducing two Aspbergian, socially awkward, dorky white guy characters two scenes in a row (Bale and Carrell) is also jarring as hell; i actually felt myself sink in my seat like “oh man this is going to be a long movie”. But as the plot develops, more relatable characters show up, and the cameos get better, i found myself loving this movie. It’s like a cross between a Wall Street movie, a demented genius movie, and a detective procedural, and it doesn’t really matter that you don’t quite get all the math going on, because it works equally as a comedy, suspense flick and morality play. Definitely better than Spotlight but also no Fury Road (or Ricki and the Flash for that matter).

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