The Big Short

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So incendiary, it’s irresistible.
★★★½
Movie Review #1,048

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Distributed by Paramount Pictures.  Biography-Drama-Comedy.  Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.  Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.  Released January 8, 2016.  Directed by Adam McKay.  Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay.  From the book by Michael Lewis.  Starring Ryan Gosling, Rudy Eisenzopf, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan, Steve Carell, Tracy Letts, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, and Byron Mann.  With cameos from Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Richard Thaler, and Selena Gomez.

“The truth is like poetry, and most people f–king hate poetry.” – overheard at a Washington, D.C. bar (at least according to a title card in “The Big Short”)

There’s two sides to every story, most especially in politics. Director Adam McKay presents his side of the 2008 mortgage crisis with striking conviction. You may agree with what “The Big Short” as to say. You may disagree. Either way, you’re guaranteed to leave the theater pissed off, either at the banks depicted or at how the banks are depicted.

Let’s not forget, even “Amadeus” was a complete lie and still a damn good movie. In an all-too-similar sense, “The Big Short” is worth seeing, no matter who you think is to blame for the mortgage crisis. Not since “Fahrenheit 9/11” has any American filmmaker presented such a divisive political matter in such a fashion. McKay keeps even the most dissenting viewers hooked until the very end.

“The Big Short” does at times feel slightly exhaustive. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter how much financial jargon you understand; it’ll get to your skull either way when you’re hearing it for two hours. But to the same effect, the movie is a lot more engaging than we’d expect. The screenplay, written by Charles Randolph and director McKay, presents the crisis from the inside out. The film sets up like a documentary and mostly maintains that candid style for its entirety. Thus it’s not just the characters who break the fourth wall here; the film itself seems to be constantly speaking to us. Subtitles appear on the screen to explain economics terms that are unfamiliar to the average American. When things start to feel a little too complex, the narrator (Ryan Gosling) pauses and lets us enjoy a brief economics lesson. There’s three of these sardonic bits throughout the film: one from Margot Robbie in a bathtub, one from Anthony Bourdain, and one from economist Dr. Richard Thaler and actress Selena Gomez. At one point, there’s even a scene where Gosling’s character brings a Jenga tower into a meeting room at a bank, and uses it to metaphorically explain the importance of low-rated bonds. It’s obvious that McKay and Randolph are satirizing the fact that Americans care more about simplicity and entertainment than we do about economics. It would have only been natural for the approach to feel downright condescending, had it not been so clever and humorous.

The cast delivers that excellent script formidably. Steve Carell’s performance seems to embody the word “seriocomic” to a T. The man is a bumbling, high-strung hypocrite, wobbling on the line that separates candidness from caricature. Brad Pitt, as always, seems to be playing himself, but he does a fine job at it. Christian Bale is at the top of his game in his performance as the single most interesting character in the movie: a man with a glass eye and an M.D., who prefers to work in stocks than in medicine, who listens to death metal in his office at full volume, who has a slight lisp, who drums on his legs constantly (with drumsticks), who bets $1.3 billion against the economy, despite that he’s the only only one convinced that the housing market will collapse. Bale’s spot-on performance as the completely off-kilter individual is a pretty major asset to the zaniness of the movie.

Perhaps for those who have a thorough understanding of economics, “The Big Short” may be too didactic. But for the rest of us, it’s a terrific and heavily engrossing film. Again, whether you agree with its message is surprisingly irrelevant. Its demeanor is downright incendiary, and at that, it’s irresistible.

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