Sunday, 24 January 2016

Movie Review: The Big Short (2016)



With the right approach and wording, it is technically possible to make a comedy about pretty much anything. As much as I’ve gone on about how there are some things that should always be treated seriously, even those rather taboo subjects can be made funny in the right hands. And then you have today’s film, a comedic drama about the global financial crisis, as directed by Will Ferrell’s right-hand man Adam McKay. Trust me, whatever initial ideas you may have about this kind of feature as made by the guy who made Anchorman, you’re on the wrong track. So, time to look into some Dennis Miller brand esoterica that, apparently, the Academy has gotten behind… yeah, I’ll let you know when that statement actually means something around here. This is The Big Short.

The plot: Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager on Wall Street, has discovered that the U.S. housing market is on the brink of collapse within the next few years. Over the next several months, other financial minds such as Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Charlie Geller (John Margaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) come to a similar conclusion. They all decide, by their own methods, to make some major income off of the short-sightedness of the banks and bet against the house, only it seems that not even the banks are playing by their own rules any more.

It’s a definite joy to see an ensemble cast pull this much individual weight with their performances. Gosling is the kind of absolute asshole character who is so much of a prick that he actually breaks the fourth wall with how bad he is… no, seriously, there is a scene where he actively lies to the audience; in lesser hands, this would’ve been a complete vacuum of enjoyment. Instead, he probably makes for the most engaging character in the film. Steve Carell, who is ultimately the main character for the majority of the film, brings back that bombastic hijacking of every scene that he used to mild effect in Freeheld, and turns it into something truly captivating to watch. I doubt many actors can get away with barging into a work meeting, rant for several minutes and then just leave on a personal phone call and still making the character likeable. Magaro and Wittrock are both very capable everymen and have some pretty decent chemistry with Brad Pitt, who is pretty much fulfilling his producer duties in what is a glorified cameo. Hey, I’ll take it over his last role any day. In terms of straight-up acting, all the points go to Bale however. While he gets across the neurotic intellect all well and good, his subtleties with portraying his false eye are definitely worth commending. Getting those eye twitches down as well as they are in this film must’ve been hell but, then again, it would’ve been a cake walk compared to his previous body-twisting bits of method.

This is an irrevocably thick screenplay, filled with Wall Street terminology that can feel like chewing through a slab of concrete just to get to the crux of the conversation. Now, normally I would condemn a film that isn’t able to properly translate its wording for its audience; however, I hold back on this for two reasons. One, they actually do explain the more important details, even reducing one down to just being ‘shit’; instant points for that one. And two, the fact that the terminology is so anti-layman actually ends up working to the film’s advantage. Early on, the audience is told that these terms are indeed confusing and they’re meant to be confusing; it highlights how the financial crisis managed to happen without more people noticing it. It’s like the fine print on the iTunes Terms & Conditions: If you actually get through all the obtuse wording and obfuscation, then you’d realize that they are specifically asking you not to hold them accountable for extremely bizarre situations like if their technology is used for the production of chemical or biological weapons. Yes, seriously.

The anti-layman attitude is eased through the audience’s attention spans through how the film is presented. Something tells me that Carell signed onto this film because some part of him misses working on The Office because a lot of it carries that same mockumentary tone. The editing, the intentionally-shoddy camera work complete with awkward zooms and re-focusing, the near-constant breaking of the fourth wall; it all has that sense of the familiar about it. Of course, it feeling familiar doesn’t automatically make it bad; on the contrary, as these out-of-film moments make up some of its funniest scenes. Whether it’s Gosling explaining or intentionally misrepresenting the events of the film, Geller and Shipley detailing how a key moment in the film occurred differently in real life, or just the random celebrities that are brought in to help explain the financial words that affect the plot the most (“Here’s Selena Gomez to help explain”, for instance), this film gets crafty with its presentation. Not that the film is completely screwball like this, as one of its more disarmingly nice touches is the way that it acknowledges one of the easiest jokes of the subject matter (the suicide rate of bankers) and clips its wings immediately through the introduction of a character related to one of the mains. I won’t spoil it here, but it makes for probably the most emotionally gripping part of the film.

There are films that have good soundtracks, that are good at utilizing those soundtracks, and then there’s those that reach the point where they deserve genuine respect for one reason or another. For the first instance outside of an Evan Goldberg production, we have a film that does all three. Let’s start with the easy point: Having a scene set to Kelis’ Milkshake that doesn’t instantly make me want to throw up is an achievement all on its own, probably helped by how it features Carell doing some amazing facial expressions while conversing with a stripper. There’s the sequence featuring Ludacris’ Money Maker that is surprisingly pitch perfect in intent and delivery, the constant metal music coming out of Burry’s office that never ceased to bring some form of joy when in conjunction with Bale’s performance, and then there’s the piece of music used when the setting shifts to Vegas. It’s a mash-up of The Phantom Of The Opera, Blockbuster Night Pt. 1 by Run The Jewels and a cover of That’s Life… I… I have no words. As a means of portraying the sudden feeling of anxiety at just how bro-y these bankers that are running the world really are, it is just about the best that any human being could have possibly put together.

All in all, for all the credit I give this film when it comes to its comedic timing, excellent cast, use of soundtrack and absorbingly unorthodox style, we’re still talking about an extremely exclusive subject matter that could possibly leave a lot of viewers in the dark. Still, even further credit is due in that this might be the first time in a long time where a film’s incomprehensibility actually worked somewhat to its advantage. It’s better than The Danish Girl as, even with how untranslated the dialogue is, there’s no subtextual mishandling to hold back what the film does right. However, for as much credit as I give this film, I still want to watch films that don’t require intensive degrees to understand in their majority. As a result of this, it ranks lower than The Revenant.

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