The Big Short: EW Review

8 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘The Big Short’ shows how Wall Street came tumbling down.

In Adam McKay’s comic and clear-eyed adaption of Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short,” a handful of finance speculators __ outsiders and oddballs __ predict a downturn in the housing market only to realize, to their horror and immense profit, that they’ve effectively bet against America, and won. Easy, Chill, Combo, Bounce, and Sleep, and not forgetting Lebowski: just add “The Big” to any of those words and you’ve got yourself a ready-made film.

Being funny is not the same thing as being unserious, but in trying to be the former, the guy who made the movie version of “The Big Short” has proven merely that he is the latter.”I’ll never forget coming out of the trailer for the first time and the first person I saw was Steve Carell, and he looked at me and went, ‘Never do this again. It’s a rollicking, outrage-fueled odyssey through the financial collapse of 2008, from the carefree offices on Wall Street to the vacant subdivisions in Florida, that gradually reveals not just a market bubble but a colossally bankrupt system and a nation that blissfully teetered into absurdity.

That, or The Big ShortUp until now, the most serious film on Adam McKay’s résumé as a director might well have been Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Today we bring you a nice little character profile on each member of the unlikely team of traders at the centre of it, who actually profitted from the bursting of the subprime mortgage bubble. Remember how the entire nation was brought to the bring of a new Great Depression by some greedy bankers and the confusing fiscal instruments they wielded? In the movie, fortune smiles on an ambitious young Wall Streeter when another moneyman accidentally leaves him a briefcase full of tasty secret information. Bale is a speed metal-listening, socially-awkward former neurosurgeon with a knack for numbers, Pitt is a retired banker offering sage wisdom miles from Wall Street in the country, Gosling is a slick, avaricious people person and Carell is a fiery-tempered, neurotic, downtrodden trader (almost reminiscent of Michael Scott at times).

There was nothing small about the disaster that struck the economy in 2008, and, as for shortness, the movie is peopled, from first to last, with the morally myopic and the emotionally stunted. Most people, I believe it is safe to say, would never build a date night around a movie about subprime mortgages, credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. Adam is on a roll, his film is garnering kudos and his “Funny or Die” website he founded with is frequent writing partner and best pal Will Ferrell is still one of the buzziest sites around. And as anyone who has been paying attention to McKay’s comedies can attest, his humor has always come laced with biting political subtext: the TV news of “Anchorman,” George W.

Many of us who lived through the Great Recession a few years ago with its collapsing housing prices, imploding stock prices and big bailouts have no desire to relive that economic horror show even for a couple of hours. McKay told me that, “I made this film, not just for the financial people or for the elite, I made it also for the people in the heartland, who don’t know what really happened. “ Steve Carell, who stars in the film, agreed and added, “I didn’t know. Bush-era America in “Talladega Nights,” white collar crime in “The Other Guys.” He has kept his loose and antic style, leaving his starry cast __ including Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt __ ample room for improvising. All of which is to say, he might have been the least likely candidate in Hollywood to make a brainy, bruise-black satire of America’s 2008 mortgage crisis. Taking Michael Lewis’ seminal book about the meltdown as source material, director Adam McKay channels his own anger into something rarely even attempted by Hollywood, let alone pulled off: a comedy about a tragedy.

Few of the people talking about it, from President Obama on down, show the slightest interest in understanding what actually happened and how to prevent it from happening again. The story is everything, and that story is: Evil bankers in an unregulated Wild West of capitalist depravity crippled the economy, cost us taxpayers billions of dollars in bailouts and carried on in a lawless spree that should have resulted in jail time for everybody. I can’t wait to play Riggs, he’s larger than life, over the top, and I love as an actor to go there, to play that kind of role.” What Carell also might have to look forward to is awards action for his performance in “Short.” Lovely Jennifer Jason Leigh was there talking about her layered beautiful performance as the voice of Lisa in Charlie Kaufman’s and Duke Johnson’s brilliant “Anomalisa.” Jennifer– hot in the 80s, hot in the 90s, then out of commission for a bit, is a hot actress of the moment.

There’s the glass-eyed, heavy metal-listening trader Michael Burry (Bale), a the brash-talking banker Jared Vennett (Gosling); a cynical hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Carell); and two young investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who are mentored by Ben Rickert (Pitt), a retired veteran who now disdains Wall Street. One is led by Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who is so fueled by anger at Wall Street hucksters that he skulks through the movie like a coiled snake ready to pounce. She’s also in the upcoming “Hateful Eight.” “It is kind of cool this is happening,” she told me. “I’ve been in the business a long time, and I’ve had ups and downs.

The 2008-09 financial crisis remains a life lesson on how blindly following the conventional wisdom too often is just another way to light a match to your money. Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction bestseller, the film follows a small group of contrarian Cassandras who bet against the housing bubble just as it was about to burst. As our semi-trustworthy slickster narrator, Ryan Gosling oozes smarm and smartass charm, leading viewers through the ins and outs of a game that’s always been rigged against regular, hardworking folks. In other words, McKay finds all this stuff so boring that he thinks the only way to juice it up is to keep interrupting himself with strange sketch-comedy bits like having Robbie (the blond vixen from “The Wolf of Wall Street”) sipping champagne and lounging in the tub as she explains it all for us. The high-flying hype in housing made many feel like fools for being responsible buyers — putting 20% down on a home, steadily making monthly payments and aiming to one day pay off a 15-year or 30-year mortgage.

There’s also Christian Bale as a socially awkward, speed metal-loving doctor-turned-money manager who was the first skeptic to sniff out the house of cards the market was built on. A voiceover from Gosling ties it all together — a deconstruction approach that is reminiscent of “Goodfellas,” except that this scam was being carried out by Masters of the Universe, not mafiosos.

After seeing an advance screening for the movie last week, I laughed out loud when Steve Carell’s character said he wouldn’t buy a car from one of these bond guys. Made in stop motion animation, which is a painstaking process, each animator literally worked two seconds of film per day; “Anomalisa” is pure brilliance. Directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson and written by Kaufman, the film depicts the story of an author of a customer service book, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) going to Cincinnati from his home in Los Angeles to give a talk. It trades on the fact that, ten years ago, no one outside the fortress of finance had the time, the will power, or the math to follow the fathomless chicanery that was taking place inside. (No wonder it could flourish with such abandon.) McKay and his co-screenwriter, Charles Randolph, working from a book by Michael Lewis, are so alert to this ignorance that, every so often, they halt the movie as sharply as a dog walker yanking on a leash. The brilliance of Lewis’ book is in how elegantly and simply it explains the many such terms involved when mortgages were bundled, sold and sliced up.

McKay introduces the bond-rating agencies — which gave AAA ratings to packages of mortgages that included a lot of subprime loans of the kind traders call “dogs–t” — in the form of a little old lady complaining she can’t see anything and wearing impenetrable black sunglasses. The pace was trending upward from around 1% to 4%. “Since 2000, people whose homes had risen in value between 1% and 5% were nearly four times as likely to default on their home loans than people whose homes had risen in value more than 10%,” the author wrote.

And whenever they’re against-the-grain schemes start to get to the point of becoming too arcane or Byzantine, the director playfully breaks the fourth wall to allow the audience to catch up. For example, when all of the script’s talk about collateralized-debt obligations gets confusing, the film might cut to, say, Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table to help explain things. The viewer is left as he pretty much was when the dust settled: stripped by the greedy, confused about what just happened and wanting someone, anyone, to end up with striped sunlight. This isn’t even pie-in-the-face comedy but rather the on-the-nose variety, and while a sense of the absurd can be a useful approach in satire, even when dealing in the realm of the dark or dire, McKay’s style is witless, clunky, sophomoric.

But it’s also relentlessly playful, with characters speaking into the camera, pointing out inaccuracies in the script (by McKay and Charles Randolph) and stuffing in hip-hop montages. The relentless push for subprime loans simply doesn’t happen in, say, Canada. (The subprime mortgage rate there is about 5 percent; at the peak of the financial crisis in the US, it was 24 percent. Less overt is the tantalizing way the life lurks on the outside of the frame in pictures of kids on desks and in family obligations canceled for a late night at the office. Any questions about why our economy tanked and Canada’s did not?) This wasn’t “predatory lending” either: Banks lose hugely when they are forced to foreclose.

Deep down, McKay couldn’t be more serious about his film’s message, which is this: Anyone who ever bought into the version of the American Dream that included their own home (with or without a white picket fence out front) was played for a sucker by the banks, the regulators, and the government who all seemed to interpret capitalism as license to rob people blind. The rants are exhilarating; the editing, by Hank Corwin, is a riot of faces in closeup, chats to the camera, and neon-bright montages of pop culture; even a trip to Florida, made by Baum and his team, who want to see the mortgage market in all its dysfunctional glory, comes off as a riff of jocund disbelief. Merrill Lynch announced a $4.5-billion hit, then revised it to $19 billion, and then finally to more than $50 billion,” he wrote. “Morgan Stanley announced that it had lost more than $9 billion on what appeared to be a bet by a single trader.

Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” released in September, took a far less hasty look at the catastrophe in Florida, and at the families who felt the brunt. At the end, McKay runs all the statistics that seemed so frightening seven years ago — all the trillions in wealth destroyed, all the billions in bailouts, all the crimes unpunished. The big Wall Street banks had become the dumb money.” He found about 15 such people, he said, “some seriously interesting and peculiar people — the sort of oddballs and misfits who would have a hard time getting a job at a big Wall Street bank.” Lewis — whose books “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side” were also turned into movies — said he didn’t expect a subprime mortgage thriller to hit the big screen.

But the overall message is that financial “experts” aren’t always on track, and sometimes the financial gimmick that individuals think doesn’t make sense really doesn’t make any sense. You’d be hard pressed to name a more successful Washington program — how often does a gigantic federal spending bill result in Washington actually being paid back, with interest? (Certainly not the Detroit bailout: That cost us $9.5 billion, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced at the same press conference last December at which he announced the final score for the bank bailouts.) Stopping a nationwide financial panic at a cost of zero seems like a bargain, but doing so at a profit of $25 billion kinda looks like the single brightest thing the government has done this century. Sometimes, it’s a lie. “High finance touches — ruins — the lives of ordinary people in a way that, say, baseball does not, unless you are a Cubs fan. And no, despite the liberal rhetoric, it wasn’t a new Depression: The meltdown was in September and the economy was growing again by the following June. When Frank Capra made “American Madness,” in 1932, with the Wall Street crash fresh in the public mind, he dramatized a run on a bank, taking care not to let the outbreak of chaos send the movie into a spin.

The major achievement of the Dodd-Frank bill is that it made it almost impossible for small banks to launch amid the new regulatory requirements, which essentially amount to a newly fortified protective fence built around the existing large banks. That is why, with everything at its most hectic, McKay tugs at yet another strand of plot, reeling in Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), out-of-towners who trade from their garage. By this stage, McKay has got so many characters in play that only one of them, Mark Baum, is given much of a backdrop; we learn of a private sorrow, wrestled over in conversations with his wife (Marisa Tomei).

Under longtime CEO James Johnson, a longtime Democratic Party stalwart, “Fannie Mae led the way in encouraging loose lending practices among banks whose loans the company bought. . . . That such people would be better off simply renting their homes than forced into a situation likely to lead to foreclosure, bankruptcy, the destruction of their credit rating and/or homelessness doesn’t bother the administrative state. So expert are the performers that you wind up rooting for Burry, Baum, and the others despite yourself, knowing full well that they are fuelled by cynicism—by an ardent faith that the system will and must fail. Buffett wound up making more than $1 billion in the deal.) McKay’s movie essentially tells us that the big banks like Goldman had ensured that the fix was in — they had criminally rigged the system.

Jackson, resplendent in a three-piece orange suit, approaching the camera in the new Spike Lee film, “Chi-Raq,” and hailing us as guests. “Welcome to Chi-Raq, land of pain, misery, and strife!” he declares, in the tone of someone offering milk, honey, and a chance to dance. Lee and his fellow-writer, Kevin Willmott, shift the action to the ganglands of present-day Chicago, whose citizens are being slain by the gun in numbers that rival American military casualties abroad. When Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), the queen of the revolt, enters the Armory (much as female Athenians stormed the Acropolis, in the original play) and humiliates the commander, who is left half-naked and shackled to a Confederate cannon, you don’t know where to look. Still, if you can handle a collage of provocation and fury, rather than a tale well told, the movie has its moments, as well as its roster of prophets: Angela Bassett as a peace activist, John Cusack as an inflammatory preacher, and the majestic Jackson, bringing bad news like a merry Jeremiah.

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