Sunday, January 17, 2016

"The Big Short"

 3.5 / 5 

This is one audacious movie, not just for its complex structure, which has it following as many as five different but interconnected stories at once, but for its attempt to create narrative fiction out of complicated non-fiction -- economic non-fiction, to boot.  The Big Short scores high marks for its technical merits and artistic virtuosity, the trouble is, it can't quite stick the landing.

For most of its length, The Big Short goes out of its way to clear things up for those of us who only watched in astonishment as the housing market collapsed in 2007 and 2008.  We learned a little about what was happening at the time, but never quite enough, and The Big Short knows that.  Its screenplay, by director Adam McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph, finds a multitude of ways to explain what we need to know.

In one terrific sequence, an investment banker played by Ryan Gosling uses a tower of Jenga blocks to demonstrate what's going to happen and why.  At other times, readouts on the screen give us additional information and definitions.  And at a few critical points, the movie gets really clever by having Margot Robbie in a bathtub explain subprime loans, or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table try to clarify "synthetic CDO."

Yet, for all of it, two critical things happen while someone who's only functionally literate when it comes to economics watches The Big Short: First, the clarity dissipates, and just as the film seems to be reaching a climax, it's easy to lose sight of exactly what's going on; and second, the narrative loses its thrust.  As the goings-on become murkier and murkier, it's hard to care about what's happening.

Here's the thing: What you think is going on in the last 30 minutes of The Big Short indeed is what's going on.  But it's being done so slyly, through stealthy phone calls and some emails, that it's easy not to be sure.  Dramatically, it hurts the movie, and it drains it of much of the zesty, sharp-tongued fun that came before.

Because up until then, The Big Short is an undeniably entertaining movie, as if irascible, left-wing economist Robert Reich wrote a movie about why the housing market failed.  Well, in point of fact, he did make a movie, a terrific one called Inequality for All that puts forth many of his own views, the kind that rankle conservatives to no end.  Substitute Reich for some fantastic actors, and to a certain degree, you've got The Big Short.

Typically, movies that star Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei and other big-name actors in bit parts (Melissa Leo has a particularly unique cameo) worry about things like story flow and character arcs.  Those are the furthest thing from the mind of The Big Short.  Shot with handheld cameras that make it feel like the faux-documentary of The Office, it's more concerned with getting the details and the facts right.  There is no character growth -- save, perhaps some soul-searching done by Carell's character -- and perhaps there needn't be.

The Big Short wants to get its message out to the widest possible audience, using the best possible vehicle with the most appealing stars.  It's essentially a how-it-happened docu-drama (frequently a dock-comedy) that seeks to keep us angry about the way so many bankers defrauded the public and conned the system to the point of collapse.

But it wasn't all bankers.  The Big Short gets a little short-sighted itself when it doesn't dig any deeper into the story it presents (as just one example) of a stripper who owns five homes because she hasn't had to pay more than 5% down on each.  The movie has a lot to say about the mortgage industry that helped her do that, and the banking industry that funded the mortgage industry -- but little about the greed of the everyday homeowner who just couldn't wait to buy houses s/he couldn't afford.

By following four different groups of people who discover, pretty much simultaneously, that there is a way to predict the coming housing crisis, The Big Short keeps things moving.  It moves so fast it never even pauses to catch its breath, and it is made my skilled artists who know how to juggle so many different stories and still make the film alluring.  But as it nears its end, as the system collapses, it becomes harder and harder to follow, and the movie neglects that careful over-explanation that exemplified its first half.

It's also so breezily entertaining that it's easy to forget we're watching four sets of guys who are eager to get very rich by watching others get very poor, and despite some claims of soul-searching, the movie never does quite find a way to make them feel entirely sympathetic; they will only win if everyone else loses.  (Spoiler alert: None of them refuse to take the money, they just feel sort of semi-bad about it.)

Still, despite some shortcomings, The Big Short is worth seeing, both as a helpful reminder of what happened back then, and as a movie that manages the swell trick of being both entertaining and informative.  Never let it be said that the old '90s concept of "edutainment" is dead ... it's apparently just migrated from children's TV shows and theme parks to Oscar-nominated movies.  When The Big Short ends, you'll find you've laughed a little, you've learned a little, and you still have a lot of questions.

Viewed Jan. 16, 2016 -- DVD

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