Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: "The Big Short"

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a movie as simultaneously funny and angry as “The Big Short.”

Ostensibly a dramatic, spit-flecked tirade against the real estate crash and the widespread financial shenanigans that caused it, the film is also wickedly hilarious, dripping in black humor and rife with sharp one-liners. It’s a smart, insightful howl against a system that was rigged -- and, the movie argues, still is.

Here is a sure Oscar contender, and one of the year’s best films.

Director and co-writer Adam McKay, known for lowbrow comedies often starring Will Ferrell (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”) unbeloved by me, makes the unlikeliest left turn in Hollywood history. He and Charles Randolph deftly adapt the book by Michael Lewis, celebrating a disparate band of anti-heroes who bet against the real estate market when the rest of the world of high finance, from the most junior broker to the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, viewed it as Gibraltar solid.

The most amazing accomplishment of the film, beyond maintaining that bravura blend of wit and fury, is making the complicated world of mortgage financing not only understandable, but turning it into the villain of the piece. We glimpse a few smarmy manipulators, a handful of real estate brokers writing mortgages they know their clients won’t be able to pay, etc. – but they’re cogs in the machine.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a former M.D. who founded his own hedge fund. It was he who first looked at how banks were packaging subprime mortgages and selling the debt as an asset, using volume to hide the millions of cracks in what appeared to most observers to be an unassailable wall of strength. Burry, a kook who runs his office barefoot, bet early and bet big that it would all come tumbling down.

Others took his cue and ran with it, further uncovering pieces of the jumbled puzzle. Steve Carell is terrific as Mark Baum, a money manager operating his own shop under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley. A provocateur who lashes out at those who seek to take advantage of others – an odd disposition for an investor, obviously – Baum sees the looming crisis as less an opportunity than a fount of outrage.

Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, a slick operator who helps put the pieces together for others and acts as our snide narrator. Brad Pitt turns up as Ben Rickert, a dispossessed trader brought in to act as mentor/facilitator by a pair of young hotshots (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who sniff out the opportunity. Pure mercenaries looking for a score at first, they slowly become educated that those numbers on a spreadsheet represent real homes, families, lives.

The story essentially moves forward as a triad, each of the three investor groups experiencing pushback and pressure from their colleagues. Just when we think the house of cards must come tumbling down, it magically stays afloat through the sorcery of confidence and delusion.

Like “Spotlight,” this is an ensemble film that essentially has no central character or leading performances. Only with Carell’s Baum do we learn much about him outside of the office, which provides a little illumination into how somebody dedicated to making money could wear his conscious so plainly on his sleeve. As good as he was in “Foxcatcher,” Carell is even better here.

Even as it lauds the rebels who went against the grain and said ‘no’ when everyone else said ‘yes,’ “The Big Short” never lets us forget that the accounting chicanery that caused the worst recession since the 1930s is the real story. Burry, Baum and company may have won a pile of money for their insight. But we all lost in the big game we didn’t even know was being played.

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