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Friday, January 1, 2016

The Big Short 2015 * * * 1/2 Stars

The Big ShortDirector: Adam McKay
Year: 2015
Rated R (Click on the rating link to see Cole's on-site review)
Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt

Written by Cole Pollyea

In the last three years, Best Picture winners have included films that are stylistically original and successful (Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)), films that have tremendous historical significance (12 Years A Slave), and films that show and tell riveting stories (Argo). While all three of those films, and many more best picture winners from the past, demonstrate possession of two of those attributes, it’s rare that a film possesses all three, but such is the case in The Big Short, a dazzling portrait of the individuals with the ability to foresee the collapse of the housing market in the few short years leading up to 2008.

Based on his portfolio, it appears that director Adam McKay has officially stepped out of his comfort zone with his twelfth directorial undertaking, his last few being Anchorman 2: The Legend ContinuesThe Other Guys, and Step Brothers. Truthfully, you don’t have to be a film connoisseur to notice the distinct differences between the type and caliber of filmmaking that he’s doing now as compared to in the past. In hindsight, there was nothing about his previous films that I was reminded of during my immensely satisfactory viewing of The Big Short, indicating that this director is seriously talented and he’s got a few more aces up his sleeve (at least I hope he does).

Taking on a Wolf of Wall Street-esque approach to the introduction—we’re introduced to the world of investment banking, real estate, and our main characters via a combination of narration by and talking to the camera of the well-fitting, yuppie-looking Ryan Gosling, as did Dicaprio in “The Wolf”, along with a seamless incorporation of real-life footage—the movie starts out exactly where it needs to in order to prepare us for the onslaught of financial jargon. Collateralized debt obligations, or CDO’s, subprime loan rates, and default rates are just a few of the most frequently used terms in the film, and, as Gosling explains, they are simple concepts that are given a complicated label to keep commonfolk in the unknown. The movie is fast and sharp and it has an innovative and refined approach to explaining these to its viewers before it gets going. For example, in a thirty second cutaway, Margot Robbie tells us, from the luxury of her bathtub, that when we hear subprime, we need to associate the word with “s***” in regards to the quality/reliability of mortgages being taken on by certain consumers. As opposed to stressing out over comprehending what the characters are talking about, we relish in the fashion which they are explained, and it makes the viewing experience all the more fascinating. What’s more, the filmmakers also employ an innovative tactic to signify passing time: relevant snapshots of well-known events that took place during the time period, stitched together and shown in rapid succession that is at first disorienting, but later on becomes an essential aspect of the movie.

And Gosling isn’t the only one to talk to the camera and this doesn’t just occur in the introduction; it’s consistent throughout and there are a number of characters sharing (what feels like) equal screen time addressing the audience. It seems as though this is becoming more and more common in films these days, and it’s increasingly evident where it works and where it doesn’t. As to The Big Short, it is a wonderful attribute.

However it’s not all about comprehending what’s going on on-screen, despite that there is a little too much effort that the audience must put forth for this cause, to the filmmakers’ fault. Looking past the story, there are a number of impressive performances at work here, Steve Carrell’s as the obvious leader of the bunch. Here he plays an extroverted president of a hedge fund who, along with his well-portrayed colleagues, becomes overwhelmingly aware of the fragility of the housing market and, consequently, the overall United States economy. Together, they, along with Gosling’s character, who goes against the ideology of his employer on Wall Street, Deutsche Bank, a young pair of entrepreneurs who operate out of their parents’ garage with the assistance of a next-door trading veteran (Brad Pitt), and an exceedingly quirky, self-motivating business owner (Christian Bale) all decide to short the housing market. To those of you who don’t know what “shorting” is, it is essentially an organized way of betting against the success of a certain company or, in this case, an industry, in the form of an investment through financial corporations. Despite all of the flack, mockery, and opposition to this decision, which was viewed as totally idiotic given the recent success of the market (a result of the mesmerizing facade which the film digresses in great detail), these three paralleling stories, which are told independently of one another, are told with intent, skill, and pizazz. Carell delivers lines naturally here, and his presence feels very real. His discoveries of the misconduct in the world of real-estate point to his optimism about our nation, which he undoubtedly shares with many viewers. “There’s a bubble! There’s a bubble!”, he exclaims over the phone to his business partner as he runs through the airport terminal. “Let’s short it 50 million!”. It’s fresh and exciting stuff and the fact that we already know the outcome of their investment doesn’t make the proceedings any duller, but rather, the opposite.

As mentioned, Gosling plays the part of the jaded banker magnificently, as does Bale as the strange leader who births the idea of the big short. Of note are the pitch perfect performances of the two young men who played the mentioned entrepreneurs, Finn Wittrock and John Magaro, whose prowess help us understand the underlying cynicism that comes with betting on the failure of our own economy, an interesting aspect of the screenplay, which Pitt helps carry out.

Another of the underlying themes in the movie is that justice is never really served or, if it is, it never quite feels how we anticipate it might. The grim circumstances under which Bale’s character makes his millions and under which Carell’s character do all point to the question, at what cost? Both fought the system and appear to have “kicked them in the teeth”, but Bale’s character has lost respect and valuable business relationships and Carrell feels equally saddened about how corrupted the world in which they live is, despite his abundant wealth. The note that the movie goes off on is poignant and surely gives its viewers something to ponder over as we go on with our everyday lives.

Yet its overarching complexity is what holds it back from being a perfect film. Take a theater of viewers and I’m certain that a handful of people would struggle to explain the series of events that lead to its denouement. While the material isn’t far-fetched, it does, as mentioned, require a great deal from its audience in order to follow what’s going on, which ultimately doesn’t resonate with all audiences (though it did for myself).

With that being said, make no mistake about the fact that The Big Short is one of the sharpest, most mesmerizing films of the year and a best picture nomination is guaranteed for the masterwork. It harbors an array of invigorating performances and its style is fresh and distinct. Its screenplay carries out fascinating themes and its intelligence is rarely paralleled. If there were an Academy Awards market, it wouldn’t be in your best interest to “short” one of the best movies of the year.

Written by Cole Pollyea 

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