The Big Short (2015)


*. I came to this movie with high expectations. I had read and enjoyed the book by Michael Lewis. The movie adaptation had been very well received, with strong reviews. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as getting nods for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Christian Bale), and Best Editing. Adam McKay and Charles Randolph won for Best Adapted Screenplay. It also did strong box office given the kind of film it was, which is to say something aimed at a more mature audience than the usual superhero blockbuster crowd.
*. I also watched this movie right after watching Margin Call, a movie that didn’t get nearly as much attention. I was expecting to be underwhelmed by Margin Call but ended up liking it a lot. I was expecting to like The Big Short and came away thinking that there was nothing at all I liked about it.
*. Let’s stick with the comparison to Margin Call. In my notes on that movie I mentioned how strange it was that the characters were more believable than those we get in The Big Short, who are based on real people (basically the names have just been changed).
*. It’s one thing that the people we meet in this film — all of the people, and not just the smirking Ryan Gosling — are obnoxious jerks. I can accept that, indeed even expect that from a film set in this milieu. But that they are all such eccentric caricatures is harder to swallow. Despite this being a true story, it’s set up and played like a cartoon.
*. I don’t like the cast. How’s that for putting my cards on the table?
*. As noted, Ryan Gosling smirks a lot. Christian Bale is . . . Christian Bale. I don’t know what more to say. I guess he’s supposed to be intense. Like Bruce Wayne intense. Or Patrick Bateman intense. That seems to be his range. How many frozen degrees of intense does he have? And does he have anything else? Steve Carell has gotten a lot of praise for leading dramatic roles like Mark Baum here and John du Pont in Foxcatcher. I found him pretty unconvincing in both parts. Brad Pitt, hiding behind a beard, doesn’t do much of anything and he does that blankly (aside from one brief eruption meant to signal his virtue).
*. Together, the cast represent one of the popular myths of the financial crisis, that only a disparate group of outsiders saw through all the incompetence and lies to make the big score. When I say “myth” here I don’t mean a false narrative, but a way of shaping and interpreting the events. But in fact I don’t think this is an accurate portrayal of how it all went down. There were many people who read the writing on the wall, and the players in this story were hardly rebel outsiders. They were very wealthy, well-connected hedge fund managers.
*. The problem of how to explain what is going on is solved in an original way by having celebrities appear and give little primers to the audience. I guess these were some help to people who were really having trouble with the basics, but I found them awkward and unnecessary, and the whole breakdown of the fourth wall (with several of the characters directly addressing the camera) to be a distraction. I wonder if McKay lacked confidence in the story being strong enough to carry the film without such stunts.
*. Or perhaps I’m not picking up something in the film’s tone. I often hear it described as a comedy, but I’m not sure what that means. It’s not funny, but it does traffic in caricatures and has a kind of mockumentary feel to it. Are we allowed to think of a true story as satire?
*. The main source of humour is the fun it has in mocking the stupidity of the financial establishment and its bottom feeders, but these are overdrawn and again I have to wonder how accurate it is. Most of these people did OK in the end. I think anyone higher up had a pretty good idea about how rotten the system was, but . . . they were making money. As things turned out, the taxpayer got stuck with the bill, no one went to jail, and nothing changed. It’s going to happen again. So, if it was a comedy, who had the last laugh? Or are we talking about Balzac’s Comédie humaine here?
*. Drawing up my own balance sheet, I didn’t find any part of this film as compelling or interesting as Margin Call. Where that film took a very condensed, focused approach, here we get a shotgun blast of different narrative threads, not all of them connected. Where Margin Call didn’t have any good guys or bad guys but only real people attempting to manage their way through a crisis, here the moral lesson is laid on thick as tar and finally feels unearned.
*. As I indicated, I really had high hopes for this one. It was a movie I wanted and expected to like. But it just seemed to flounder along without any purpose. My favourite Led Zeppelin song playing over the end credits was, for me, the high point.

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