Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Review: The Big Short (2015)

The Big Short (2015)

Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity

Score: 5 out of 5

"Well, that was depressing." Those were the first words I told my mom after we got done watching this movie on demand. It's not because this was a bad movie, far from it. No, it's because of the sheer amount of detail it goes into on the causes of the housing crisis of 2007-08, and the global economic meltdown that spilled out of it, which people are still feeling the pinch from today. It's based on a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis about a group of hedge fund managers who, around 2005, realized that the white-hot housing market and the seemingly bulletproof financial instruments derived from it were, in fact, built on a house of cards... and then proceeding to make themselves and their clients filthy rich by essentially betting obscene amounts of money on the economy collapsing within a few years. It's a movie fueled by righteous indignation at nearly everybody who worked on Wall Street in the 2000s -- the people who were either too short-sighted or too greedy to take a closer look at the finer details of the economic boom of the era, the corrupt credit agencies that were giving out sterling ratings to borderline-worthless loans, and everybody who claims that "nobody could have seen this coming". Because a few people did, in fact, realize that disaster was imminent. I'm not gonna spend this review going into details, because not only am I bound to screw something up, but because this film did it better than I ever could.

And it's also a friggin' hilarious movie. It's a black comedy, yes, but it manages to give enough of a sense of humor to the proceedings to get us interested. It does for learning about economics what Bill Nye did for learning about science, as the film literally trots out celebrities like Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez (as themselves in cameos) to explain all the financial-babble in the film in terms that human beings can understand. It goes out of its way to break the fourth wall and inform us that, yes, the bizarre things we're seeing actually happened, and alternatively, to point out where creative license was taken with the true story for the sake of making things more interesting. It asks us to cringe at how out-of-control the financial world was in the '00s, and to laugh at the situations the characters find themselves in. When the protagonists start exploring foreclosed homes in Miami, they get chased out by an alligator in one of them. Steve Carell's neurotic Mark Baum tries to use a lap dance as an opportunity to ask the stripper about her mortgages in order to support his thesis about the housing market, not at all distracted by the fact that said stripper is doing a sexy dance in front of him. The mortgage lenders act like frat-rat douchebags who are practically bragging about the fact that they give loans to people without even bothering to check their incomes. A debate between Christian Bale's Michael Burry and an investor who put $20 million into the doomed Bear Stearns takes on an Alanis Morissette level of irony in an instant. This film may be preachy, but it's one of the best sermons I've ever heard, deftly weaving some much-needed levity into a story that could've been just flat-out soul-crushing. Director and (together with Charles Randolph) co-writer Adam McKay has definitely stepped up from Will Ferrell comedies with this one; he and Randolph earned their writing Oscar at this past year's Academy Awards ceremony.

And that's without getting into the four main cast members. With Michael Burry, Christian Bale plays a financial figure at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from Patrick Bateman or Bruce Wayne, a nerdy, seemingly autistic former doctor who winds up figuring out about the problems with the market. Brad Pitt was almost completely unrecognizable as Ben Rickert, an ex-trader who left the industry in disgust at the behavior he saw and turned into a doomsday prepper out of the belief that it was all doomed to come crashing down, only to re-enter the game when a pair of young traders from his hometown of Boulder, Colorado contacted him. Steve Carell was more recognizable in his role as Mark Baum, but still perfect casting as a ridiculously analytical man prone to ranting at length about anything that bothers him, reminding me of certain people I know. (Aunt Kim, if you're reading this, you know exactly who I'm talking about.) Finally, Ryan Gosling's Jared Vennett essentially serves as our narrator, guiding us through this world while serving as the "straight man", the normal Wall Street trader amidst the cast of weirdos and outsiders around him. All of them were amazing, playing flawed individuals who see the writing on the wall, but aren't above trying to make a buck off of it. The film confronts head-on the fact that they're essentially hoping for millions of people to lose their jobs and their homes, most notably when Ben confronts his two proteges when news of an impending economic meltdown causes them more glee than anything. For all their criticisms of the greed that got Wall Street into the pit it was facing, they're ultimately not so different themselves, acting less out of concern for their fellow man and more because they see the crisis as an opportunity. The only reason they're the heroes is because the other guys are even worse.

The Bottom Line:

For me to talk more about this movie and why it was so great would be to essentially give a lecture on the subprime mortgage crisis, so I'm gonna stop here and just tell you to see this. Not only is it an involving primer on why your job sucks right now (if you have one), it's got a great cast and sharp writing that elevate it beyond what merely could've been done in a documentary. It's a great companion/sequel to The Wolf of Wall Street in both its tone and its subject matter, and one of the best movies of last year.

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