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The Big Short Movie Review

The Big Short Blu-ray combo cover art
The Big Short is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray combo.

The Big Short (2015) movie poster The Big Short

Theatrical Release: December 11, 2015 / Running Time: 130 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Adam McKay / Writers: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay (screenplay); Michael Lewis (book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine)

Cast: Christian Bale (Michael Burry), Steve Carell (Mark Baum), Ryan Gosling (Jared Vennett), Brad Pitt (Ben Rickert), Melissa Leo (Georgia Hale), Hamish Linklater (Porter Collins), John Magaro (Charlie Geller), Rafe Spall (Danny Moses), Jeremy Strong (Vinny Daniel), Finn Wittrock (Jamie Shipley), Marisa Tomei (Cynthia Baum), Tracy Letts (Lawrence Fields), Byron Mann (Mr. Chau), Adepero Oduye (Kathy Tao), Karen Gillian (Evie), Max Greenfield (Mortgage Broker), Billy Magnussen (Mortgage Broker), Margot Robbie (Herself), Selena Gomez (Herself), Anthony Bourdain (Himself)

 

Director Adam McKay made his disgust with the industry responsible for the 2008 financial crisis crystal clear in The Other Guys, a buddy action comedy that ended with a number of charts and figures bemoaning bankers' reckless, largely unregulated, entirely self-serving practices,
a topic that had some relevance to the film's timely plot. In The Big Short, McKay takes his interest and scorn even further.

McKay has long been known as Will Ferrell's creative partner, having followed the funnyman from "Saturday Night Live" to direct Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and more. The two have co-founded Funny or Die and lent their support to comics and concepts they believe in, producing everything from "Eastbound & Down" and "Drunk History" to Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie and even Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Big Short takes McKay in a new direction. It's classified as a comedy for the purposes of the Golden Globes, but there are fewer jokes than there were in The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie this evokes enough to categorize as a spiritual sequel or companion piece. McKay and Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs) adapt a 2010 book by Michael Lewis, whose non-fiction work was the basis for The Blind Side and Moneyball. Though humor is prevalent, the subject is no laughing matter for McKay or his distinguished cast, which includes four A-listers in Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt.

Hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) buys into the Jenga-based business proposal of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling).

Gosling plays our narrator Jared Vennett, who occasionally features in the story and often directly addresses the camera. The movie almost has the feel of a documentary as it makes extensive use of news and pop culture images and video to identify time periods and to explain how these events came to be.
The plot deals extensively with complex financial practices and ideas, or at least practices and ideas that the industry would like you to think are too complex for you to understand with their unnatural terms and abbreviations.

The movie combats this issue not with a glossary of terms for you to read over beforehand but with three lessons dispatched by actress Margot Robbie in a bathtub, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in a kitchen, and Selena Gomez and some financial bigwig (the only one who requires an identifying caption) at a blackjack table. It's a witty approach which thankfully (and safely) assumes no prior knowledge of this world. To understand how this racket could play out as it did, you will need to pay attention to the movie's lessons. Even if you're not versed in finance and not well-equipped to gain knowledge from celebrity camera addresses as part of an amused audience, you should be able to follow along with the story, which is presented in an accessible fashion.

Michael Burry (Bale) forecasts the housing market crash years in advance. He is a socially awkward genius with a glass eye and a bad haircut who habitually listens to heavy metal, uses drumsticks, and goes around in a t-shirt, khaki shorts, and bare feet at work. Burry, who is constantly reminding people he is a doctor, is not someone whose word you take over Alan Greenspan and every other authority in the business. But Burry is just crazy enough to have the vision everyone else lacks. He devises a way to bet against the housing market, to buy subprime mortgages to sell short. Banks are happy to oblige his unprecedented proposals, which strike them as free money. His partners and investors are less excited at the prospect of eating dozens of millions of dollars in losses every year until his prediction comes true.

Burry is not the only one betting against the economy. Through a wrong number, Vennett takes the idea to a small hedge fund based out of Morgan Stanley. The fund's abrasive manager, Mark Baum (Carell), is just crazy like a fox enough to buy into Vennett's pitch, which presents the different grades of loans, from AAA to B, as a Jenga tower just waiting for a few low pieces to be pulled out before the entire thing topples over. Baum and his associates (Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, and perpetually gum-chewing Jeremy Strong) take a trip to Florida to get a feel for the housing situation and discover widespread fraud and braggadocious bros (brief but effective Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen) boasting of their ability to get anyone a mortgage. With that, they become believers in a bubble and partner up with Vennett in anticipation of a windfall.

The film's third layer of interest involves a couple of ambitious young men (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), who have built a multi-million dollar hedge fund out of $110,000 and a garage, but have been unable to use that success to get their feet in any of the big banks' doors. They contact Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a paranoid doomsdayer who has gotten out of banking but is willing to help them pursue their sound plan.

Christian Bale is arresting as glass-eyed eccentric multimillionaire Michael Burry.

The Big Short does not simplify the factors or attempt to turn the crisis into a morality play. No amount of levity and directorial flair can divert notice from how dense this material is. But the movie still succeeds, like Wolf, by putting human faces on this deliberately impenetrable, predominantly unpunishable white collar crime. One important distinction between this and Wolf is that our protagonists are not the villains here. They have recognized the industry's greed and corruption and are looking to profit off it. They may be getting rich of the world's misery, but they have more of our sympathy than the coke-snorting, yacht-owning predators of Martin Scorsese's three-hour epic ever did.

McKay's talents may largely have been underappreciated until now. His movies have made the masses laugh, but we largely credit the funny improvisations and chemistries of their casts. The director's skill has been there the whole time; it just hasn't been taken seriously attached to Ferrell comedies opening in 3,000 theaters in the summer. Produced not by McKay and Ferrell or their former collaborator Judd Apatow, The Big Short hails from Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, whose mostly prestigious 11-year filmography includes films like 12 Years a Slave, Selma, The Departed, Moneyball, and The Tree of Life. On paper with McKay and Carell attached, The Big Short might have sounded like something lighter and different than those Oscar nominees and winners. But back in September, Paramount Pictures, lacking any other horse in this year's race, announced a December opening following a premiere on the closing night of AFI Fest. Could this film be the awards contender that the previous two Michael Lewis adaptations and The Wolf of Wall Street were? Maybe.

The Globes' Comedy or Musical designation, which seems almost as debatable as other recent inclusions and exclusions, has helped guarantee Big Short some awards presence. Since the Oscars' Best Picture field was expanded to support up to as many as ten (but unlikely more than nine), Paramount has typically gotten one or two films nominated. The only other films they're even campaigning for are Charlie Kaufman's R-rated stop-motion dramedy Anomalisa and Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, which though well-received is unlikely to compete for anything other than tech honors.

Eager to get their feet in the big banks' doors, self-made multi-millionaire hedge fund managers Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) enlist the assistance of a retired, successful banker.

The Big Short should fare better with critics than with general moviegoers. It's a funny film whose subject matter remains timely even a decade later. Carell, who in the last three years has shown a willingness to make better movie choices than he had been,

gets to create a character unlike any he's played. He is a schmuck but one whose manners are shaped by a tragedy he's still coping with. Carell is good, as are Gosling, who uncharacteristically sports a fake tan and black hair, Pitt, who is gray-bearded, and most of the sorta familiar character actors filling the supporting roles. One actor is great: Christian Bale.

It should surprise no one to see Bale throwing himself into another juicy part. But he's done it again, having traded in his American Hustle combover and beer belly for a glass eye and drumsticks. It's such an interesting and unusual performance. Burry's quiet moments are the film's best and make us wonder what Bale could have done with the title role of Steve Jobs had he not bowed out of Danny Boyle's biopic and been replaced by Michael Fassbender. Bale has flourished when embodying real life people the general public doesn't know, as in his two David O. Russell movies. Burry certainly doesn't have the baggage and expectations that Jobs does and that is probably liberating. One thing for certain is that the film is arresting in every scene that Bale features.

The Big Short opens in just a few theaters today, before expanding slightly next week on its way to a nationwide expansion on Christmas Day. Boosted by this week's multiple nominations from the SAG Awards and the Golden Globes and by buzz that has been consistently building since its debut, the film opens to favorable reviews, its Oscar prospects seemingly legitimate.

Related Reviews:
Directed by Adam McKay: The Other Guys Step Brothers Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Adapted from Michael Lewis: Moneyball
Now in Theaters: Trumbo Brooklyn Room Bridge of Spies Steve Jobs The Martian 99 Homes
Christian Bale: American Hustle The Fighter The Prestige | Steve Carell: Crazy, Stupid, Love. Foxcatcher The Way, Way Back
Ryan Gosling: The Ides of March Drive Only God Forgives Blue Valentine
The Wolf of Wall Street The Campaign The Hangover

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Reviewed December 11, 2015.



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