The Big Short and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Adam McKay
So the guy who directed both Anchorman Movies, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys is gonna sit here and try to tell us about the housing crisis? Yeah right! Who’s gonna take THAT seriously!? Wait, they’ve got Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, AND Ryan Gosling? It’s also written by the writer of Moneyball? Well I certainly didn’t see THAT coming. Then again, it’s not like he hasn’t taken on relevant targets in the past. Just look at Anchorman 2! That took a lot of pot shots at Fox News and the media in general, even if it was surrounded by a lot of stupid. So can the guy who brought us four Will Farrell man-child movies manage to make something a bit more mature while still giving it a proper sense of humor, or will this be just another painful example of someone who is WAY out of his depth and has no idea what the hell their doing and go back to his old shtick to give us Step Brothers 2: Now There’s Three of Them or Something? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows several people in the years leading up to the big financial crisis of 2008 brought about by the crash of the housing market. As we interweave between these stories of people who saw it coming, it’s slowly dawns on them (and the audience) just how absolutely unattainable the market was at the time and just how corrupt the system got which is what led to everything going to hell. That’s really about it as most of the characters serve as either audience avatars or exposition machines to keep the audience in the loop as to what’s going on. It’s definitely more about giving the us an idea of the scope of the problem rather than telling personal stories within them, but a couple of the character eek out an arc here and there like the young investors Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who are new to all this and get caught right in the god damn middle or even Mark Baum (Steve Carell) who’s already got it out for the big banks and at first sees this as just another thing to call them out on until he realizes how dep the rabbit hole goes in all of this.
It’s unfortunate that this movie is plagued with so many problems in its editing because the story here is gripping and some of the actors give stunning performances. Maybe in the hands of someone other than Adam McKay, this movie could have been as good as it should have been, though I have no idea if the problems are due to his creative direction or if someone else is to blame for the obnoxious editing in here (like maybe… the editor). Still; he is the director so everything does fall on his shoulders. Either he thought that what they were doing with the way this movie was cut together was fucking brilliant or he didn’t have enough pull behind the scenes to tell them to fix this shit. I’m guessing the former because it’s not bad in an INCOMPETENT sort of way; it’s more like a stylist choice that just did not work.
Unlike how the trailers sells this movie, it’s not about a bunch of smart people getting together to screw with the banks in 2008, but instead follows several groups of people in their own stories about getting in on the ground floor of the housing crisis. To this end, it’s basically three separate movies being made and a lot of the big name stars (like Bale and Pitt) don’t really amount to a whole lot in the grand scheme of things. Bale’s story is by far the most tertiary and his character really doesn’t have much of a character arc, while Pitt is basically the Obi Wan Kanobi to these two up and comers who catch wind of these bad mortgages early on and want his help to take advantage of it. Even Ryan Gosling who is sort of the narrator of this story (that’s something we’ll get into later) is only a side character in of the main stories so he appears pretty sporadically. The real stars of this movie are Bale who indeed has his own story but it’s pretty disposable, John Magaro and Jamie Shipley as the two wide eyed newbies, and of course Steve Carell as mother fucking Mark Baum who steals this movie every second he’s on screen. Seriously, in a movie with three academy award winners in the cast (Bale, Melissa Leo, and Marisa Tomei) he shines brighter than any of them and his performance here is probably the best I’ve seen all year. His character is well realized with believable flaws, is absolutely hilarious, and has a genuinely heartbreaking story arc. He’s the guy who already knows that Wall Street is full of shit, but once he and his team really start to look into the housing market and all the shady (and definitely illegal) shit that went into it, it really does break him. He starts out as a fire brand full of piss and vinegar, ready to punch out anyone who’s trying to screw over the little guy, but as things get worse and worse, it practically brings the guy to his knees and you can see the terror and sickness just welling up inside of him as he looks more and more people in the eye who tell him just how bad people can act when they have so many ways to minimize and rationalize their actions.
Unfortunately, no one else can really match him in this movie and that might be because he has the most interesting story to tell. The two young guys with Brad Pitt has some strong moments, especially when they realize what it actually means for them to be right about all this, but we don’t really have a reason to WANT them to win other than that they’re not as big as the banks or something. I know this has to at least SOMEWHAT close to the real story, but it takes them way too long to get to the point where they come to terms with what’s going to happen. Until that point, they’re just two other people looking to get paid and that’s pretty much what everyone else here is trying to do. The weakest story though is Christian Bale’s as the hedge fund manager who was the very first one to pick up on this (everyone else in the story does after he makes his move). There’s just not a strong story to tell here. He sees something shitty that’ll happen in a couple years, he puts a lot of money into it, and then he waits for it to pay off. That’s it. There are barely any characters in this story other than Bale himself, and he doesn’t even have an arc here. He’s just waiting to be proven right which just isn’t all that compelling to watch. Not only that, but his scenes also get it the worst in regards to filmmaking. Lots of awkward edits that I guess are supposed to be arty or something and they play way too much rock music (without warning) which just became obnoxious after a while.
It’s just another creative choice they make here that doesn’t work. Others include the rapid fire editing which intentionally cuts off scenes mid-sentence, montages of random shit whenever they jump forward in time to get across what it was like all the way back in… 2007, and of course whenever anyone starts to talk to the god damn camera. I REALLY hated that last one. Now if they had just left it to Ryan Gosling that would be one thing. He actually has some good stuff to say (my favorite being when he told the audience directly that a scene where Mark Baum tells a room full of suits that they’re fucking idiots did indeed happen in real life) and he is the narrator of the movie, opening and closing it with a little history of before and after the crisis. They couldn’t just leave it at that though and everyone here gets one (MAYBE two) chances to speak to the audience. Not about the scene or their part in the story. Oh no! To talk to the audience about the movie, such as when one of the two newbies tells the audience directly that the scene we are currently seeing DID NOT happen as it did in real life and then tells us how it actually did happen. It’s one thing to reiterate to an audience that we’re seeing a true story, it’s another thing to flat out tell them about script inconsistences as a way to cut short any criticism or something. WE DIDN’T LET GRUMPY CAT GET AWAY WITH THIS IN HER CHRISTMAS MOVIE, SO WE’RE CERTAINLY NOT GONNA LET YOU DO IT EITHER!!
Similarly, the movie will cut to celebrities at certain points in the movie where they play themselves trying to explain how certain financial institutions or concepts work so that we can understand them. I don’t think they do a GREAT job explaining the concepts of subprime mortgages (they suck), CDOs (a shitty ball of mortgages or something), and synthetic CDOs (side bets?). Who knows. Maybe I’m just a total moron or maybe they were intentionally only half explaining it so that they can sound oh so smarter than the audience, but the fact that it’s REALLY dumbed down here and that they got random celebrities like Margo Robbie and Selina Gomez to give us a brief lecture was just another opportunity for this movie to pointlessly show off.
Actually, I have theory here if you’ll bear with me for a second. As stated earlier, Christian Bale’s story seems the least important than anyone else’s despite being the person to get the ball rolling and I think I know why his story still manages to linger in this film after that point. At the very end of the movie, there are little blurbs about where all the principal players in this film are right now. They save Michael Burry (Bale’s character) for last so that we can find out that he’s since gotten out of the investment game for the most part and has only invested in ONE thing since then. The screen pauses and then slowly reveals it to be… water. The dude who predicted the collapse of the housing market is now investing in water. THAT’S why he’s in the movie, and that’s why we have these celebrities talking to the audience. Hell, that’s why they bothered pausing the movie to explain an inaccuracy in their script. Adam McKay and everyone involved in this were more interested in imparting a message to the audience than making a strong film. Of course they did what they could and got some good performances out it, but it was message first, filmmaking second here, at least that’s what I’m thinking from how this movie is laid out. That honestly really bugs me because if that’s the goal then make a damn documentary. The Wolf of Wall Street managed to say a lot about this fucked up system (and was incredibly stylish to boot) without compromising on it as a film which is why that ultimately is the better film here.
So in the end, what can we say about this movie? Well, it has a good story to tell and an important message to impart, but that alone doesn’t make a movie great. There needs to be discipline in the directing and stylistic choices, and it needs to stand on its own as a piece of entertainment, especially if it’s selling itself as a movie and not a documentary. This could have been a lot worse but Steve Carell manages to carry this massive and somewhat dysfunctional mess all on his shoulders and makes it something that’s almost great instead of merely decent. His scenes are the best shot, the best edited, and have the biggest gut punches that really gets across the weight of everything that’s going on around him and how it will affect the rest of the world. I’d say this is definitely worth seeing for his performance and for the story they’re telling about just how screwed up everything was just a handful of years ago (and most definitely still is), but it’s not one of the best of the year which is a shame. Still, after this and Foxcatcher, I’m REALLY pumped to see what Steve Carrell does next… as long as it’s not Evan Almighty 2.
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