' ' Cinema Romantico: The Big Short

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Big Short

“The Big Short” takes its title from Michael Lewis’s 2010 best-seller, which was fully designated “The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine”, the doomsday machine referring to the CDO bubble that burst in the 2000’s, triggering the late-decade financial crisis that shattered the American economy. Adam McKay’s film sees this disaster, however, not through the eyes of those responsible, perhaps because those responsible were ill-equipped for introspection, but those who uncovered the looming disaster and ingeniously bet against it. Which is why despite all its similarities to J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call”, the movie I thought of was John Carpenter’s 1988 “They Live.” That cult classic pilloried go-go eighties America by imagining the world as a place overrun, unwittingly, by aliens, “corruptions of human beings”, as Carpenter called them. Only by wearing a certain sort of sunglasses could characters see the aliens and, in turn, what was really going on. The principal characters of “The Big Short” are essentially the only ones wearing those sunglasses; they see what’s happening to America even as everyone eats and drinks and acts merry, spending their lives spending. Of course, in “They Live”, Rowdy Roddy Piper could save the world because that was sci-fi and it was all a dream. “The Big Short” is real life, and even if these characters know what’s coming, they can’t stop it.

The economic fiasco is first detected by Michael Burry, an eccentric MD and hedge fund manager, who seems, more or less, to live in his office, which seems appropriate, marking him as indifferent to the incessant cultural distractions - seen throughout in a quick-cutting hodgepodge of images like so many covers of so many gossip rags in so many grocery aisles - preventing the outside world from understanding the looming deep do-do. Played by Christian Bale, Burry is a repository of tics, which Bale specializes in, though these are not, thankfully, tics for the sake of tics; you’re left thinking that only someone this eccentric would have detected the crack in the code before everyone else. He then employs his investors’ considerable funds to levy bets against the sky-rocketing American economy so that when it goes belly-up he reaps what all these other idiots have sewed.

Meanwhile, the scheme trickles down to a few others, guys like Jared Vennett, played by Ryan Gosling, like the worst parts of Gosling’s own Jacob Palmer and Barry Pepper’s Frank Slaughtery, an asshole who knows he’s an asshole and thrives on it. Vennett then enlists another hedge fund impresario, Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), uncouth and pissed off at the world in general but wholly genuine, less the cynic he might initially appear than an idealist in a world that seems designed to trample his every last inkling of belief. Presumably these characters alone would have been enough for a piece of fiction, but real life also added Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), two up-and-comers on the outside looking in who catch wind of the fiscal hustle and with their sorta-friend, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), lending financial aid, make a mockery of the big banks that mocked them.

McKay, whose formative years came on SNL before graduating to sketch-filled Will Ferrell comedies, some good, some not, indubitably models “The Big Short” film on the films of Martin Scorcese, tricking it up at every turn with bells and whistles, breaking the fourth wall, loading up the soundtrack with pop music, moving the narrative at a gallop, and making clever nods to the ultimate banality of real estate fraud and its deliberately confusing language by having famous people – “Margot Robbie in a hot tub” – explain it for us. Most of these devices are successful, and their gleeful nature make it feel like we’re listening to an 18 piece rock band playing on the deck of the Titanic.

But I couldn’t help thinking that Scorsese would have made Gosling’s Jared the main character of this movie, the piratical anti-hero, much like he did in “Wolf of Wall Street”, where he sought to illustrate the spectacle of selfishness, the awe-inspiring arrogance of greed, and just how minuscule the price to pay for such massive malfeasance really was. McKay does that too, a little, but does it primarily through characters to who our respective groups of outsiders react to. You’re supposed to be rooting for “The Big Short’s” quartet as they masterfully capitalize on the avarice of capitalism. And that’s why occasionally McKay has them stop and consider the implications of their actions; he just never seem to make them consider it quite enough. Charlie and Jamie go to the press, get nowhere, and essentially surrender. Rickert, a potentially fascinating character, one who has already acknowledged Wall Street's inherent sins and withdrawn, has a single line about how what they’ve done will succeed only because the American economy will be destroyed, a half-hearted concession, nothing more. The only character that really seizes on this idea of a moral corrective is Baum because Carrell successfully carries the massive weight of guilt.

Carrell, of course, made his bones as office manager Michael Scott, a man whose obliviousness was awe-inspiring. Here, however, Carrell plays the part completely self-aware, so self-aware, in fact, that he is anguished every second of every hour of every day. The film attempts to pose the question of whether this economic crisis was triggered by fraud or stupidity, and Carrell plays the part not as a fatalist, but as a man who is gradually made to realize fate is playing him. The crisis was triggered by both fraud and stupidity, and he’s stuck in the middle, made to lose even if he wins big. And by the final sledgehammer of a shot you recognize why this movie needed so many laughs; otherwise, we all would have just sat there crying.


Daryl said...

Matt Karki: (processing closing files at 8pm) "Daryl, these loans don't make sense. There's a 3% rate, and the borrowers have no jobs, no income verification, and no asset verification."

Me: "The guys running these mortgage companies are smart guys, Matt. They must know what they're doing."

-A scene from 2002

Nick Prigge said...