Film Review: The Big Short

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The Big Short Plot Summary:

Based on a true story and book of the same name, we delve into the major players in the financial world who foresaw the economic crisis that began in 2007 due to the housing market collapse, as they attempt to gamble against the banks and US economy.

Adam McKay and I have never gotten along.  I’m not a fan of his particular brand of comedy, and find him aggressively mediocre in all things writing and directing.  The Big Short was clearly subject matter he cared deeply about, and it shows.  While McKay can get too cute with his direction, I’ve never seen a tenth of the effort in his other projects that he puts into this one.  While sloppy and convoluted at times, this two hour plus financial crisis is entertaining all the way through, which is one of the nicest compliments I could ever give a film.

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I’m not going to sit here and pretend I understand all the economic and financial terms going on.  Credit Default Swaps.  CDO.  Subprime mortgage.  It’s hard to believe the guy who wrote this also penned Step Brothers.  It’s like if you went to see Lebron James play basketball, but you walked in the stadium to find him swimming the 100 meter butterfly.  McKay actually plays with the idea that the audience won’t know what’s going on, and cleverly tries to explain it.  Sometimes these scenes work, sometimes they come off as more confusing, but I respect the effort.  Some might say he’s talking down to you, but it’s all in good fun.  The point is you get the big picture stuff.  The film focuses on a specific group of characters who anticipate the excessive mortgages and foreclosure of homes, leading to the implosion of several investment companies, and the economic crisis of the late 2000’s that we all know and love.

The biggest reason this works are the characters.  Even if you’re lost at what’s going on (which admittedly I was at times), I was still invested in the people.  That’s what makes great films great.  All the principal characters are so passionate and invested in every scene, you can’t help but connect with them.  They all have different ghosts and personal struggles, and the film wisely locks in on all of them.  While I credit a lot of this movie to McKay, there is no doubt he was blessed by the movie gods with the level of actors he got.

Christian Bale is a fantastic actor.  I’m not breaking any news here, but it needs to be said that every role he’s ever done, whether it be in something brilliant, or complete garbage, he always gives you a memorable performance.  Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, who’s responsible for nearly all the investing for Scion Capital.  He’s basically the patient zero of the movie, and the first to heavily bet against the housing market.  His deals start a chain reaction for the other characters in the film.  What makes Burry interesting is his awkward social nature, and a childhood accident that he still dwells on.  Bale brings so many quirks to the character, and watching him be the smartest man in the room, but also face immense pressure from his higher ups was high drama.

We also get Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, a banker, and the only one buying Burry’s prediction.  If you’ve read me on the site for a while, you know I have a love affair that goes back to Gosling’s brilliant performance in 2011’s Drive.  Gosling is absolutely hysterical in this film, sort of reminiscent of Mark Wahlberg in The Departed.  While we don’t get his personal back story, he’s the only one who talks to the camera, and it’s a great call.  Gosling chews up scenery left and right.

Vennett aligns himself with neurotic hedge fund manager Mark Baum, played passionately by Steve Carell.  Along with Burry, Carell is easily the emotional core of the film, as his back story is the most tragic.  Baum is basically a professional bull shit detector, so when he starts learning the horrors of what’s going on, the character increasingly gets madder and madder, and Carell builds it up beautifully, creating a perfect climax.  Carell is also anchored by his employees, which provide plenty of conflict, with special kudos to Jeremy Strong, who plays Baum’s right hand man.

The other characters of note are hungry young investors who want to make a name for themselves in Wall Street, played wonderfully by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock.  They provide a different perspective, and are guided by the perfect foil, a jaded Brad Pitt, who’s retired from the financial game.  Pitt isn’t in the film much, but he makes his presence known.

While McKay’s direction can stray a bit, he delivers a fast paced JV Wolf of Wall Street, and I mean that as a compliment.  There are so many nice touches, like when Baum’s crew investigates houses in Miami that are abandoned and desolate.  One warning I will heed though is the movie is clearly one sided.  Remember, this is based on a true story.  It’s not a documentary.  As long as you still tell a good story though, the agenda shenanigans don’t bother me.  If McKay keeps directing movies like this on topics he’s passionate about though, then go for it.  I’d rather see that than Anchorman 3,4 and 5.

Rating: 8 out of 10 (Great)

 

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.