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Overall Rating
4.12

Awesome: 35.29%
Worth A Look52.94%
Average: 5.88%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 5.88%

2 reviews, 5 user ratings


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Big Short, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Disaster Artists"
5 stars

Anyone who sets out to make a movie about the 2008 financial meltdown that came very close to destroying the economy and forcing everyone to invest their few remaining dollars in canned food and shotguns has to reckon with two major hurdles. The first is that an enormous amount of people were affected by this disaster and continue to feel its repercussions to this very day and may not be especially eager to relive it at the multiplex. The second and more important problem is that even though it has been years since those fateful days of the near-cratering of the economy, many people are to this day unsure of what it was that exactly happened that caused the disappearance of so much money and the collapse of so many seemingly invulnerable financial firms. There have been a few films in that time that have attempted to grapple with the subject but they have approached it using traditional means--"Margin Call" did it as a straightforward drama while "Inside Job" was one of several documentaries to emerge--and while those films were quite good in their own way, they seemed to be preaching to the converted more than anything else and even then, they still got so bogged down in minutiae at times that unless you knew practically everything on the subject, you were still liable to come away from it confused at times.

In bringing "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," Michael Lewis's more-or-less definitive and best-selling book about how the crisis came about, any number of filmmakers could have taken one of those sober-minded approaches and the end results might have been a perfectly decent film that audiences would have most likely stayed away from in droves. Instead, co-writer/director Adam McKay--yes, the guy best known for his goofball comedies with Will Farrell like the "Anchorman" movies, "Talladega Nights," "The Other Guys" and "The Campaign"--has taken a page from Stanley Kubrick, who transformed the deadly serious nuclear warning novel "Red Alert" into the darkly hilarious classic "Dr. Strangelove," by utilizing a similar approach and presenting the story as a flashy farce that squeezes more laughs out of the topic of financial mismanagement that any sane person might have deemed possible while offering up a genuinely felt sense of outrage over what was allowed to happen under our very noses by people who were supposed to know better. The resulting film, "The Big Short," is one of the smartest and funniest films of the year and also one of the angriest to boot.

The film focuses on a group of people who looked at the wildly expanding housing market of the early 2000s--a period when people of all stripes and financial backgrounds were being encouraged to take out mortgages with potentially onerous interest rates to either buy lavish new homes or to use the money to fund other purchases--and realized that it displayed many of the signs of a bubble that was just about to burst. To make matters worse, all of these mortgages, the good and the questionable, were bundled together into risky securities that would effectively become a central part of the modern banking industry and if they were to all go into default, the results could be catastrophic. In hindsight, the signs were all there but at the time, so much money was being thrown around that no one dared to be a party pooper and suggest that it might not last. One person who did buck that trend was Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a guy with a glass eye, a lack of basic social skills and an unerring ability to pick winning stocks for his hedge fund. After noticing that nothing about the current housing market made much sense, he actually went through the individual mortgages that made up these securities--something that even those who actually put the deals together may not have bothered to do--and realized that many of the junkier subprime loans were on the verge of defaulting. In complete defiance of all rational market behavior, he took nearly a billion dollars of his investors's money and put it into credit default swaps--in essence, he was betting an enormous sum of money on the seemingly crazy idea that the housing market would be collapsing very soon.

These investments strike most of the financial industry as insane (though not insane enough to refuse his money) but one guy, slick banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, who also serves as narrator), is intrigued and begins to look into it for himself. After he comes to the same conclusion, he also goes into credit-default-swaps by teaming up with Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hedge-fund manager who hates his job and everything it represents despite (or possibly because of) his excellence at it. At the same time, neophyte investors Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) get wind of what is going on but when they learn that they don't have nearly the amount of capital required to make any moves, they convince wealthy former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help fund them.

As these guys make their deals, they continue to delve into the increasingly shaky underpinnings of the market that they have bet billions against and discover that things are even worse than they could have possibly imagined. This is illustrated in two of the film's most brutally effective scenes. In one, Baum has a Vegas meeting with Mr. Chau (), a smug manager of collateralized debt obligations (investment packages based heavily on those questionable mortgages) who brags about the giant fees he his generating while demonstrating utter ignorance regarding the toxic nature of those mortgages or how many equally risky side deals based on them are out there in the marketplace, and is so appalled that he doubles down his already considerable bet against the market. At another point, Baum and his men talk with a couple of sleazy mortgage underwriters who cheerfully talk about how they cut huge home loan checks to people who cannot muster a down payment or who do not even have jobs. To Baum, it sounds like they are confessing to perpetuating a massive fraud but as one of his underlings explains, "They're bragging."

The people at the heart of this story are so divorced from reality and the costs that were incurred by their hubris and greed were so massive that I suppose that the only way that one could possibly capture the insanity of it all would be to do it as dark comedy--a more serious film would have a much harder time of capturing the enormity of it all. Along with co-writer Charles Randolph, McKay (whose "The Other Guys" also took a comedic look at these hijinks) does a fairly brilliant job of coming up with a screenplay that provides a lot of big laughs while still managing to lay out in a fairly coherent manner exactly what happened and why it nearly destroyed the economy. Moving at a breakneck pace, the film offers up any number of great scenes--I love one bit in which Vennett pitches his plan to short the housing market by using a Jenga game as his primary visual aid--a lot of snappy (and oftentimes wildly profane) dialogue and the considerable star power of its top-flight cast. In one of the most audacious gimmicks, the film does its own version of Vennett's Jenga bit by occasionally breaking the fourth wall to bring on some big-name celebrities to explain some of the more arcane concepts being bandied about in the hopes of harnessing the power of pop culture for the forces of good--without giving away their identities, I will say that you will not get a more compelling explanation of subprime loans that the one on display here.

This is all fun and games for a while, of course, but at a certain point, a certain nagging feeling begins to develop that this is not exactly the kind of regular guy vs. big business saga that it might have been massaged into in other hands--after all, for our heroes to eventually triumph, the economy has to go bust with billions of dollars in investments going down the toilet, long-standing companies threatened with bankruptcy and millions of ordinary people threatened with the loss of their homes and jobs. To its credit, "The Big Short" does not shy away from this and as the film enters its final scenes, the excitement that is generated from watching these guys as they put one over on the establishment soon give away to horror as they begin to grasp just how flimsily the house of cards has been constructed and just how disastrous it will be for everyone if it does come down. In the wrong hands, this shift in tone coupled with the generally sympathetic approach to characters who basically got rich while everyone else went south might have seemed off-putting but McKay pulls it off and the actors, especially Carell (who plays the guy who has the most qualms about the full repercussions of what is about to happen), are very good in showing how their characters make the move from delight to despair as each of their predictions comes hideously true.

There are a couple of moments when the satirical tone of "The Big Short" is just a little too obvious for its own good--an S&P analyst (Melissa Leo) charged with giving prime ratings to subprime packages lest the investors move to another firm is depicted as having some kind of vision problem and an SEC agent (Karen Gillan) at a Vegas convention is seen flirting with anyone who works for Goldman Sachs--and the sheer mass of information being conveyed throughout (editor Hank Corwin, whose previous credits include "JFK," "Natural Born Killers," "Nixon" and "Tree of Life" more than earns his paycheck here) is so great that some viewers may be simply overwhelmed by it all. For those willing and able to take it all in, the film is a bracing triumph that works as savage comedy, powerful drama and as a warning to us all to be vigilant lest it never happen again. Alas, to judge by the increasingly dispiriting title cards at the end, this warning may already be too late.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29681&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/11/15 16:27:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.

User Comments

3/27/16 Luisa Well acted 3 stars
1/17/16 rcurrier Well written, well acted and utterly depressing 4 stars
1/14/16 FireWithFire This film is totally unwatchable from first frame to last. 1 stars
1/12/16 Langano Clever take on the housing bust. 4 stars
12/13/15 PAUL SHORTT ENERGETIC, ENTERTAINING, WELL MADE AND WELL ACTED 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  11-Dec-2015 (R)
  DVD: 15-Mar-2016

UK
  N/A

Australia
  11-Dec-2015
  DVD: 15-Mar-2016


Directed by
  Adam McKay

Written by
  Adam McKay
  Charles Randolph

Cast
  Christian Bale
  Steve Carell
  Ryan Gosling
  Brad Pitt
  Marisa Tomei
  Melissa Leo



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