Monday, December 28, 2015

AMERICAN HUSTLE: a review of "The Big Short"

Based upon the novel The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
Screenplay Written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay
Directed by Adam McKay
**1/2 (two and a half stars)

I felt as if I was sitting at the kid's table all over again.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: star ratings are arbitrary. Yes, a quick glance at the amount of stars I award a film on a scale from zero to four would certainly give you a certain tenor to the way a film has affected me. But even so, stars do not give the entire picture. At this time, I turn your attention towards "The Big Short" from Director Adam McKay, who is primarily known for helming the likes of "Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy" (2004), "Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby" (2006), "Step Brothers" (2008) and "The Other Guys" (2010) as well as his comedic partnership with Will Ferrell as the co-creators of "Funny Or Die." 

While there are comedic moments sprinkled throughout "The Big Short," the laughs this time around come with a painful sting and truth be told, McKay has delivered his first drama, a social political diatribe against the rampantly corrupt financial system that caused the nearly cataclysmic crisis of 2008. Surprisingly and pleasantly so, McKay proves himself to be up to the challenge as his sense of moral outrage is palpable and it is clear that he wants to have audiences become equally as infuriated as he. But, the problem is that something got itself lost in the translation...or at least for me.

I am not sure, dear readers but there was something about "The Big Short" that kept me firmly at arms length despite all of the obvious skill of the writing and direction and the excellence of the performances from top to bottom. Frankly, I was confused. I was tremendously confused. With all of the financial terminology and jargon flying around from beginning to end, I found myself confused to the point of being lost over and again and nearly to the point of checking out of the experience altogether. "The Big Short" is by no means a bad film. Quite the contrary, I could easily find myself watching it again in the future. Going even further, I am willing to concede that it just might even be a great film, whose values have just been hidden from me during this initial viewing. But, all I am able to do at this time is to report to you about what I saw and how I feel right now, and to that, whatever successes "The Big Short" may possess has fully eluded me.

Opening in 2005, "The Big Short" introduces us to unorthodox hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), one of the very first individuals to discover the severe instability of the housing market due to the prevalence of high risk subprime loans that produce fewer and fewer returns. After predicting that the market will crash sometime in 2007, Burry also realizes that he just might be able to profit from this situation by betting against the housing market.

After catching wind of Burry's proposal, which has been accepted by the banks, a slick investor named Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), realizing Burry's predictions are true, wants in on the action. Soon, trader Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his team of business partners follow suit to profit at the public's expense, fully and frighteningly convinced of the inevitable collapse of the economy.

Additionally, we are also introduced to Jamie Shipley (John Magaro) and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock), two young investors who enlist the aid of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get a piece of the action, all of whom become increasingly horrified that they will each make out big winners by the time of the economy's apocalypse.

Adam McKay's "The Big Short," on the surface, may seem to exist as a completely engaging tale of a band of misanthropic outsiders who all figured out the financial doom to come and how they each profited from the crisis as well, as it is a vibrantly directed, fast paced film whose rightful and righteous anger only continues to rise to a furious boil over the course of its running time. McKay proves himself to be a strong dramatic filmmaker with a passionate outlook over seismic world events that is fueled through a feral inventiveness as well as the high quality of performances from his entire cast, including Steve Carrell, who again showcases his considerable dramatic chops with a furious indignation combined with a melancholic sorrow that was deeply impressive to view.

All of that being said, and again, I was lost, confused, and at times frustrated with the film (and quite possibly myself) for not being able to follow all of the financial and therefore Mathematical twists and turns. Truth be told, even in providing the plot description for you, I needed to perform a small bit of research as it is something that I would have been unable to explain to your extemporaneously.

For all of the talk of housing bubbles, subprime mortgages, credit default swap markets, collateralized debt obligations (CDO), synthetic CDOs, plus all of the deals, counter deals and so on, I have to admit that it was just all Greek to me as comprehension of these concepts is not my strong suit in the least, a hefty problem considering the entire film is loaded end to end with dialogue concerning nothing but these particular topics. To the film's credit, McKay seems to understand (somewhat) that mainstream audiences may be seated within the same boat as myself regarding the difficulties of digesting such complicated and confusing material and he addresses those concerns in a couple of very clever sequences where pop figures like Selena Gomez, seen at a gambling table, and Margot Robbie from Director Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf Of Wall Street" (2013), seen luxuriously in a bubble bath, each engage the audience directly to explain subprime loans.

Yes, very clever, sharp and indeed funny and informative. But even so, even as they were explaining, demonstrating, and eventually returning to the main action, I found myself lost all over again, realizing not only that the extra effort really did nothing to illuminate the proceedings but that possibly, the stunts were more self-serving to McKay than necessary. Trust me, dear readers, it's not as if I necessarily required McKay to "dumb down" the content for me. I just needed something to hang onto. Something that could be utilized as a "through line," to aid me through the constant morass of terminology that would therefore give greater weight to the main conceit of the film, which is that the country was intentionally screwed...and frankly, we're setting ourselves up to do it all over again.

On the one hand, I have been here before with other films in recent years. I remember vividly sitting in the theater watching Writer/Director Stephen Gaghan's political thriller "Syriana" (2005), casually peeking around the theater wondering if any of my theater patrons were as dumbfounded as I with the intricacies of petroleum politics and the oil industry. And there was also Writer/Director Tony Gilroy's adult corporate thriller "Michael Clayton" (2007), where its dense legal concepts which were filtered through a plot involving toxic agrochemicals also left me behind...only to catch up with me in a subsequent viewing sometime later. Like I said at the start of this review, in both of those cases, I felt as if I was sitting at the kid's table.

Even so, I am feeling that Adam McKay clearly has a message that he intensely wishes to convey to the general public about what has happened to us within the recent past and it did rub me the wrong way that he did not accomplish what seemed to be his primary goal: enlightening, and even enraging, the audience while also creating a strong film. Perhaps if McKay had approached the material from the heightened reality of satire, for instance, a greater connection would have been fused with me. But, "The Big  Short," for all of its aggressive, vitriolic energy, and breaking of the fourth wall by Ryan Gosling, is indeed fairly straight-forward film, yet so far inside, that the film began to feel more than a little impenetrable.

Yes, I can see this is precisely where quite a lot of McKay's rage filled incredulity is stemming from: the fact that the system and the wheelings and dealings grew to the point of such mass confusion, even within the main players, than how could the general public even catch on to the tragedy that was about to happen in the first place? These were concepts that were never meant to be understood! So, there was no way to gain a grasp over concepts that may as well be foreign. And still, I contest that somehow McKay could have devised a way to make his message understood as successfully as possible, something that truly is not impossible.

I think back to films like Director Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" (1987), which housed at its core a morality play and Father/son dynamics to help assuage the financial terminology on display throughout. Or even Director Michael Moore's excellent, infuriating satirical documentary "Capitalism: A Love Story" (2009), which also accomplished its hefty goals through his distinctly personal touch and political outlook.

But, Adam McKay's "The Big Short" unfortunately didn't operate on either of those high levels, try as it did. Again, I cannot hep to wonder if it was just me. But what if it wasn't? And honestly, what is the point of making a film designed for the masses if the masses are unable to understand?

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