Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In Theaters: THE BIG SHORT (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Adam McKay. Written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay. Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Adepero Oduye, Karen Gillan, Jeffry Griffin, Byron Mann, Billy Magnusson, Max Greenfield, Stanley Wong, Tracy Letts, Wayne Pere, Al Sapienza. (R, 130 mins)

Based on the book of the same name by Moneyball author Michael Lewis and a good companion piece with J.C. Chandor's 2011 film MARGIN CALL, THE BIG SHORT chronicles the disparate group of hedge fund oddballs and outsiders who predicted the bursting of the mortgage bubble and bet against the American economy when it became apparent that the crash was inevitable. Directed and co-written by frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, THE BIG SHORT treats a serious, devastating subject with cynical and often scathing humor, with an offbeat and occasionally anarchic sensibility that's used conservatively enough that it doesn't wear out its welcome. For instance, when the Wall Street verbiage gets a little too technical for the layman, narrator Jared Vennett (a smooth, sarcastic Ryan Gosling) will break the fourth wall to introduce a celebrity and say something like "And now, to explain this in everyday terms, here's Margot Robbie drinking champagne in a bubble bath," or "Here's world-famous chef Anthony Bourdain..." though at times it opts for the easy route and has an incredulous character say "OK, wait a minute...let me get this straight...are you saying....?"

The film, which changes the names of the major players from Lewis' book except for Dr. Michael Burry, centers on a small number of individuals who took the time to separately analyze data to conclude that the global economy was a Jenga tower with a foundation of dubiously unstable subprime loans. In 2005, Scion Capital head Burry (Christian Bale), a socially-awkward former neurologist-turned-hedge fund wunderkind with a glass eye and Asperger's and a penchant for ultra-casual dress and air-drumming to Master of Puppets-era Metallica and Pantera in his office, is the first to notice the initial signs of trouble and of course, no one listens to him. He risks becoming a Wall Street pariah when he invests his firm's money into betting against subprime mortgages (known as a "credit default swap") that he anticipates collapsing beginning in 2007 ("Everybody pays their mortgage!" overconfident bank execs say repeatedly). Vennett is another hedge fund cowboy who overhears news of Burry's maverick actions and finds his own analysis comes to the same conclusion. A wrong number by Vennett ends up bringing him into contact with the abrasive Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an outspoken trader with an axe to grind against big banks, and the head of FrontPoint, a small outfit within Morgan Stanley that's referred to as "the world's angriest hedge fund." Vennett and Baum discover that clumps of bad loans are being repackaged as CDOs (collateralized debt obligation) with inaccurate AAA ratings or just flat-out fraudulent "synthetic CDOs" and it's not only being condoned but encouraged. At the same time, a pair of idealistic young hedge funders from Colorado, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), also get word of what Vennett and Baum are up to and want a piece of the action. They secure the assistance of legendary trader Ben Rickert (co-producer Brad Pitt, who had a big success with the movie version of MONEYBALL)--a paranoid semi-recluse who grew so disgusted with Wall Street's dishonesty that he quit the business and retired with his millions to Colorado to live off the land. Rickert informs them that the mortgage collapse will make them millions, but it also means millions of middle-class Americans will lose everything in the process.

That's the message at the heart of THE BIG SHORT. Wall Street's illegal antics and unending greed created a housing bubble that everyone got a piece of until reality set in and the bill came due. It takes a year longer for the bubble to burst than Burry predicted, mainly because the banks were withholding vital information and not being honest about what was really happening as they continued to turn no one down for a home loan ("Immigrants are the best," one broker brags, adding "They don't even know what you're saying!"). To its credit, the film doesn't make its characters into heroes, at the most painting them in shades of gray: they profit from the collapse of the evil financial institutions, but it's still the public that pays the price, especially with the inevitable taxpayer bailout ("They knew this was coming and they did nothing to stop it because they knew the taxpayers would bail them out," Vennett seethes). The ensemble cast is terrific, though only Carell and Gosling have any scenes together (with the exception of a shot where he walks by Carell and Gosling at a convention, all of Pitt's scenes are solo or with Magaro and Wittrock; and Bale never crosses paths with any of them), and the script by McKay and Charles Randolph (who also wrote the absurd THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE) is filled with zingers and quotable dialogue (Vennett to one of Baum's partners played by Jeremy Strong: "That's a nice shirt...do they make it for men?") that almost function as a protective shield from all the devastation on display. There's a good amount of humor ranging from dark to laugh-out-loud, but also gut-wrenching poignancy, as when Baum's partners find entire subdivisions of homes left abandoned when the owners simply walked away from the house, sometimes leaving almost everything behind ("This looks like Chernobyl...all they took was the TV"), and in some cases leaving unlucky renters in the lurch ("He hasn't been paying the mortgage?  But I've been paying my rent!" says one tenant whose family is living in a van by the end of the movie). Easily McKay's most mature work to date, THE BIG SHORT is a bleakly funny, laugh-so-you-don't-cry autopsy of an economic clusterfuck that reinforced the cynicism of today's world: as Vennett says "Only one banker went to prison, all the executives got fat bonuses, and everything was blamed on immigrants and the poor." The end credits tell what the principals have been up to since the events depicted here. The most telling is that Burry's repeated requests to interview Wall Street investment honchos, bank CEOs and government officials about the crash have all been declined and since 2008, the IRS has audited him four times.

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