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Josh Reviews The Big Short

Back in 2010, Adam McKay wrote and directed the film The Other Guys, starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg.  I found the film to be mediocre, but one of my favorite things in the movie was the end credits, which featured animated graphics presenting many upsetting statistics related to the 2008 financial meltdown.  It felt random and not-at-all-connected to the movie I’d just watched, but on its own that end-credits sequence was terrific and very powerful.

I guess this has been a topic that has been on Mr. McKay’s mind for some-time, because that random end-credits bit has blossomed into his latest film, The Big Short.  This film is a triumph, a movie that is equal parts funny and heartbreaking, bringing to life many of the complicated details behind the financial collapse in 2008.

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Mr. McKay is mostly down as a writer and director of comedies such as the two Anchorman films and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  It might at first seem like an unusual move for him to helm a drama about the financial collapse, but as it turns out Mr. McKay is the perfect man for the job.  His comedic sensibilities bring a tremendous amount of wit and life to The Big Short.  Mr McKay fills the film with funny and creative filmmaking choices that keep the film lively and the audience engaged.  Characters break the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience; there are random interludes (such as The Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie in a hot tub, definitely a winner) in which random celebrities use different methods/analogies to explain certain aspects of the intricate banking terms and issues being discussed in the film; and lots more.  These varied techniques and approaches give the film a propulsive creative energy and help Mr. McKay make the points he is trying to make.

And make no mistake, Mr. McKay and his team have a lot they want to say.  The Big Short is very funny at times, but this is an angry film that is designed to get its audience angry.  The financial meltdown of 2008 was not, Mr. McKay argues, an unavoidable tragedy, but an event that a) was caused by the greed, short-sightedness, and corruption of many, and b) was in fact predicted by a few lone voices who nobody listened to.  The Big Short tells the story of several of those lone voices in the years and months leading up to the 2008 collapse.

The film’s cast is spectacular.  Ryan Gosling has never been funnier than he is here as the fast-talking, uber-confident trader Jared Venett.  While Adam McKay is a man usually associated with comedies who is dipping his toes into drama, here Ryan Gosling is an actor most known for intense, serious dramas dipping his toes into comedy.  Mr. Gosling is perfectly cast and he hits this role out of the park.  His hyper-intensity, usually so searing in dramatic films, is hilarious here.  Christian Bale plays hedge-fund manager Michael Burry, a man who predicts the housing collapse and bets large on that happening, an action everyone around him finds insane.  Mr. Bale plays Mr. Burry as someone almost on the autism spectrum (I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s how Mr. Bale’s performance seemed to me), a very weird but very smart man with few social graces but incredible brilliance with numbers.  It’s a wonderfully weird, endearing performance.  Steve Carrell plays another hedge-fund manager Mark Baum, who also gets wise to the impending collapse of the housing market.  The film casts Mr. Baum as the main voice of reason and morals — as Baum slowly has his eyes opened to what is about to happen, his horror mirrors my own, as a member of the audience watching the film.  Mr. Baum has to make a tough moral choice at the end of the film in terms of whether he will profit off of this collapse.  That point of the film works so well because of the strength of Mr. Carrell’s performance.  We value his morals but also don’t want to see him and his co-workers ruined.  Just as Mr. Baum wasn’t sure what the “right” thing to do in that moment was, so too is the audience unsure.  This is masterful filmmaking, folks.

Brad Pitt, meanwhile, plays a retired banker named Ben Rickert.  He finds himself serving as a mentor for two young investors, Charlie (John Magaro, who was great in a small role in the third season of Orange is the New Black) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock).  Charlie and Jamie are desperate to get a seat at the proverbial table of the big boys of banking.  When they too begin to suspect that a housing collapse is coming, they think that might be their way in.  Both Mr. Magaro and Mr. Wittrock are great, showing us two young bankers who aren’t monsters, just smart young men looking to make money.  (And they also serve as surrogates for the audience’s horror when they, and we, discover how corrupt the system is that is supposed to be monitoring the mortgages being bought and sold by the big banks.  That scene features the magnificent Melissa Leo (Treme) in her only appearance in the film.  It’s brief, but she kills it.)  Getting back to Brad Pitt, he’s terrific as the quiet, wizened Mr. Rickert, who demonstrates his mastery of the banking system in the way he is able to help Charlie and Jamie, and also expresses his humanity in his disgust at the idea of making money off of the destruction of people’s lives.

The Big Short is an important film.  The issues of this film are very much the issues of today.  This is not a quaint look back at back things in the past, this film is an angry voice shouting that these issues are still very much a problem to us all, right here in the here-and-now.  Thankfully, this important film is also a tremendous amount of fun, hugely well-made.  Mr. McKay and his team have found a wonderful way to bring this story to life in a way that doesn’t feel like a boring economics lecture.  The film is a hoot and, as I said at the top, also hugely upsetting.  Go see it.

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