Friday, January 22, 2016

The Big Short [film review]

Released theatrically on December 23rd

Lingering fatigue from the numerous documentaries and television shows I'd watched on the 2008 global financial collapse almost made me take a pass on The Big Short, which deals with that subject. Despite its many fascinating details, everything about the collapse and the insane levels of reckless greed that caused it to happen make me want to take a long shower after watching anything on the topic. The film's A-list-heavy cast, including Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, and Steve Carell ultimately roped me in, however, in director Adam McKay's adaptation of author Michael Lewis' 2010 bestseller The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine.   

McKay is best known for his lowbrow comedies starring Will Ferrell (the Anchorman movies, The Other Guys, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby), so he seems like an odd choice to helm a film examining the lead-up to the financial crisis that's being marketed mostly as a drama with comedic undertones. The Big Short's comedic elements actually play a much larger role than the advertising would suggest, most of it flavoured with the black tone appropriate to the bleak subject material and the repugnant high finance world the movie inhabits. The laughs are more miss than hit, with Gosling's slimy Wall Street banker character (and the film's narrator) getting the funniest lines, while McKay's regular usage of fourth-wall-breaking interactions and enlistment of celebrity cameos (including Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, and Margot Robbie) to simplify explanations of economic terms and practices quickly wears thin and doesn't pack nearly the irreverent and humorous punch that the director hopes for. Carell's Mark Baum character, a shrewd hedge fund manager who's one of the mostly real-life people The Big Short portrays, is supposed to be the film's moral compass, but between his anger management issues and generally insufferable personality, it's awfully difficult to empathize with the man (which a hollow subplot involving Baum's recently deceased brother also calls upon). Pitt, appearing in his second film adaptation of a Lewis book after starring in 2011's Moneyball, fares better in a decent supporting role as an ultra laid-back and paranoid former trader who reluctantly returns to the finance world to shepherd a pair of low-level traders. Bale's Michael Burry character, a forward-thinking money manager with one eye who's socially awkward, is by far the best reason to invest any time in The Big Short, a movie that's seriously light on likeable characters. The film's pulse elevates whenever his eccentric character is on screen, such as in the scene where the metal-loving Burry works out his stress by pounding his drum set to Pantera's "By Demons Be Driven". 

The way-stranger-than-fiction subject matter will inevitably lead to a great film on the '08 collapse, but The Big Short isn't it (and perhaps it's already been done with 2011's highly acclaimed Margin Call, which I haven't seen). Cue the showers. 

Rating: C

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