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Movie Review: 'The Big Short'

The 2007 housing crisis is viscerally played out in this bittersweet, memorizing, and terrific ensemble piece.

Review by Matt Cummings

As a person intimately aware of the 2007 housing crisis, the story behind The Big Short has served as a narrative for too many of my friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Lured by the promise of cheap money that could be refinanced in a over-priced housing market, many lost their homes when the rates became too high and home values began to plunge. The ensemble drama/comedy The Big Short analyzes both the back and front end of the crisis, hoping to finally get people interested in a topic that still demands our full attention.

Set in the years leading up to the 2007 housing crisis, The Big Short follows three stories of investors trying to make money for their clients. The housing market has boomed, allowing literally everyone the chance to own a home. As a result, those who have sought to open the doors to de-regulation have made tremendous sums of money. But it's all based on numbers that can't be sustained, and Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) can see them like no one else. But rather than pull his clients' money out, he makes a bold decision: get the banks to create a new apparatus to short the housing market. Several teams of investors, led by the imagined Mark Baum (Steve Carell) are practicing a kind of social/economic justice against the banks and sees Burry's methods as a great way to stab back at their draconian policies. Others like the made-up Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) serve as both our narrator and chief instigator to getting Baum and others to buy the shorts. As this large group of rich white men begin to take advantage of the rising defaults in the housing market, their fortitude will be tested as they learn just how devious the banks have become in hiding the eventual crisis and what effect his will have on average Americans.

The Big Short is an angry film, angry at the banks for letting this happen, angry for at people who failed to educate themselves about CDO's, but uses that rage to tell its story with an uncompromising mix of humor, educational accessibility, and high white-knuckled drama. That anger would seem like enough, until you realize that another layer has been added, that of really smart people who understand what's about to happen and pour their assets into it hoping to make money from it.

But, The Big Short is also hilariously wacky. Early in Act 1, Early on, Director Adam McKay (yeah, THAT Adam McKay) plays part of his hand about how this film will be told, accepting that not everyone in the audience is about to understand what they'll see. Instead of delving academically into it, McKay turns us on our ear: "It's pretty confusing, right? Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid?" says the narrator. "Well, it's supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you just to leave them the fuck alone. So here's Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain." And sits Robbie, sipping champagne surrounded by candles, explaining sub-prime mortgages. Brilliant. Now they have our attention. This happens several times throughout The Big Short, although the subject is still so difficult to grasp, especially as we get to its solemn conclusion.

McKay takes a friendly approach to the topic, surprising everyone by just how focused his work can be. Known mostly for ad-libbed comedy, McKay adapts Michael Lewis' best-selling book with a playfulness that's also matched by a bittersweet message about trusting in something you know nothing about. Moreover, he unceremoniously shows how some profited, allowing Bale's Murray to clean up (eventually) at the betting table. It's not a pretty affair, and after awhile you begin to wonder if anyone we're seeing are the good guys. There weren't many of them back in 2008 when the market began to turn, only people who profited (or were bailed out) and everyone else who got pulled down. That's not a good message to share with a people focused on the Kardashians' every move, but McKay boldly strikes iron and doesn't let up.

Nor does his cast. Most performances here are 30,000 feet - we don't know a lot about Burry or Vennett but is that necessary to understanding the bigger tale here? Many times, I grate my teeth at the lack of character development in a film. Here, it's the story of corporate giants screwing over the economy and how some people tried to make money from it That usually doesn't work, but here the topic is so broad that their characters can also afford to be. Bale is perhaps the best surprise here, although Gosling's narration reminds that although he's our guide, he's most definitely the enemy. Carrell has recently been playing characters with deep-seeded emotional anger, and here he lets the horses run; he's clearly fighting to help people and to right the wrongs left by his brother's suicide. Again, that emotional firecracker works so well, especially as we get near the end. But again it's Bale who perhaps makes the biggest impression, due mainly to his smallish performance. He does the little things here to separate himself from the pack of wild financial animals. His unapologetic attitude, smallish voice, and acerbic nature allows him to disappear into The Big Short to make money for his clients.

The Big Short also reveals that the way a movie is directed and edited can supersede any performance. Editor Hank Corwin's quickly edits this into a sometimes blurry and often visceral experience. There's a recklessness to things, as if you can see the walls crumbling but people are still looking up the Jenga-like skyscraper to see what's wrong. But even Corwin can't keep all the data in check: after awhile of this, the stories outside of people losing their homes, or seeing the market drop during Act 3 gets to the point that you can't tell if Burry or Baum are actually making money for their clients. It all becomes a distraction, and we haven't even talked about the 20-something boys led by Brad Pitt's mysterious Ben Rickert. More visual cues might have helped here, with each act bringing us up to speed on the assets of each holding.

While The Big Short has been advertised as a sort of heist comedy, filled with an Oceans Eleven-like cast, the subject is deafening and anything but hilarious. It's about criminal deception, by an industry that is still around and continuing to misrepresent its clients. And while the comedy is there to help further the story, there is just below the surface a boiling, almost seething anger behind The Big Short. It can't all be trusted, but it's a good place to start when trying to understand all of the dynamics. Seeing all happen again most likely won't bring Americans into demanding action - as the same CDO's have been re-written into a new name - but it should, even if that Christmas present is a giant brick with the word SUCKER spray-painted on it.

The Big Short is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity and has a runtime of 130 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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