Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Movie Review: "The Big Short" (2015)

© Paramount Pictures

Leave it to Adam McKay to write and direct a fun, dynamic, interesting comedy about likely the most confusing, dense, "tl;dr" topic of the last ten years: the collapse of the housing market in 2008. The Big Short may look like a film jam-packed with pasty white guys crunching numbers and talking about sub-prime mortgages and CDOs, and don't get me wrong, it is. Big time. It may also surprisingly be the most accessible, intelligent film of the year—one that aims to teach you a thing or two about something you had no interest in learning about ever.

The year is 2006. Working as an independent lender for a much larger financial firm, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) makes an interesting discovery: the housing market in this country has been built on a foundation of garbage mortgages... and the entire system is primed to topple at any moment, for the first time in history. Against all generally accepted logic, Burry decides to "short" the housing market, meaning bet against it. A sure bet like the housing market, banks are scrambling to take Burry's money and think his projection is bogus. What do they have to lose? That is until a handful of other financial outsiders and renegades railing against the Big Banks, including Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), catch wind of his theory—and they might be the only people in the country who see the inevitable approaching.

You'd think that the tension surrounding this tragic and frightening real life event would lose much of it's power, considering most of us remember how things ended up (if you don't, then you're in for a surprise). If anything, though, seeing the finish line—the risk they're taking and the truth they're being derided for chasing—adds an element of drama and tension that is completely unexpected. And the education we get along the way is like watching the best of Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" and walking away knowing easily 1000% more about politics than you did before. I'm no expert now about mortgages, but I could certainly hold my own in a conversation—something I couldn't do before watching The Big Short. And I can't be the only one coming out of this with that same feeling, and that is a monumental success in film-making no other movie this year can claim.

No movie has talked down to its audience in more overt ways and been applauded for it more resoundingly than this one. Even Scorcese's The Wolf of Wall Street didn't have this kind of intellectual ammunition to pair with its comedy roots. McKay, just like the writer of the source material, Michael Lewis, knew what kind of story they wanted to tell and the audience they were trying to tell it to—and those two factors did not align. How do you make the layman care about the underbelly of the financial market, and the assholes that take advantage of people like you and me? You make that pill easy to swallow with comedic, snappy, fourth-wall-breaking dialogue. Putting Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath to explain CDOs in its most simple, dumbed-down terms doesn't hurt, either.

Everyone in this movie is giving 100% in their performances, but it's Steve Carell who comes out on top. Bale is thisclose to surpassing him here, but Bale is limited by his lack of interaction with the other characters. Don't get me wrong, though... Burry listening to heavy metal and walking around barefoot in his slowing emptying office is entertaining enough. But Carell makes the rounds, sharing the screen with an energetic team and a smarmy Gosling, and he steals every scene; it helps that Baum's also the only character we get to know personally. Carell's given a lot of material to work with, and the script serves him incredibly well.

A cast of supporting talent like this is primed for Oscar gold, but that's the trouble. Who's more likely to take home the prize? You know my opinion, that this is the best performance of Carell's career, perfectly suited to his comedic and dramatic talents, but anyone has a shot here. Nominations are bound to go Carell and Bale's way, but it's the film as a whole that deserves applause. Coming completely out of left field, this movie has catapulted into my Top 5 of the year (so far). Don't be dissuaded from checking this one out. I swear, it's worth every money-grubbing, loan-diminishing second.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

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