Saturday, January 23, 2016

When Will We Get Mad About The Big Short?

     Peter Finch’s Howard Beale proclaimed in the prophetic Network (1976), “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”  The Big Short, which was adapted from Michael Lewis’s 2010 book, should make audiences furious – at least the 99% of the population that was screwed over by the top 1% and their investment bankers.  The media’s obsession with celebrities and sports overrides the two major stories of the past decade: our wars with Iraq and Afghanistan and the rising tide of international terrorism; and the continuing financial crisis in this country which exists because of greed, ignorance, and an over-preening sense of entitlement.   

     Director Adam McKay co-wrote the script with Charles Randolph and, though he usually makes comedies, the issues of how working and middle class families have been cheated by the financial industry’s greed, a continued lack of federal oversight, and the minimal punishment of those who ruined millions of lives worldwide were first addressed in his The Other Guys (2010).  The Big Short, however, is anything but a comedy.  It’s fueled by outrage and it never backs off.  McKay and Randolph have laid out the complex elements and history that created the CDO (collateralized debt obligation) bubble in a way that makes it understandable.  Tellingly, they don’t underline that the federal government led by Presidents from both parties were trying to give opportunities for more people to own their homes.

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling
     The movie’s tone feels like it’s possessed by attention deficit disorder, which reflects the situation where many took their eye off the ball of new investment products and the bizarre ways in which they made then lost money, such as derivatives, and didn’t give it much of a thought thereby initiating the financial crisis.  McKay explains the products through self-serving narration by the most cynical character and celebrities and some experts breaking the fourth wall to instruct the viewer quickly.  It’s clever and funny, but it feels like a leftover idea from one of his Will Ferrell vehicles, though those are much sharper and intelligent than their enormous box office receipts might lead a non-viewer to assume.  That, along with Barry Ackroyd’s surprisingly tacky cinematography – there’s no visual point of view in the Vegas sequence; it looks like the Chamber of Commerce sprang for a second-rate photographer – gives it the sense of a prestigious cable movie as Neil said presenting a serious subject, but also trying to be adventurously satirical, while ending up like a series of smirking sketches (1992’s Barbarians at the Gate and 2008’s Recount immediately come to mind). 

Christian Bale
     It has a Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) structure with a load of excellent actors in various groupings all after the same thing. Instead of a race to the finish, it’s hold on to the hedge fund investors until the housing market collapses.  Some reviewers have said that spectators will root for the main performers until it understands that the worldwide economy collapses.  How naïve do these reviewers think audiences are?  I felt like everyone got it at the screening we attended and were stunned when they realized from the beginning how this catastrophe – and potential future ones – occurred.  By cutting the real-life Meredith Whitney, who was in the book, the movie feels like a bunch of over-grown white frat boys and former academics jostling for money and validation.  There’s tons of shouting, cursing, and worrying, but none of these characters does anything that seems remotely useful or necessary to society.  However, I bet Ayn Rand would have loved them and she’s probably the only 
Brad Pitt
novelist most of them read.  I was relieved whenever co-producer Brad Pitt showed up because he was the only character that saw how toxic the culture was and realized he could only change it by leaving; he also didn’t yell or preen the way the others do.  Christian Bale’s performance is interesting because the character is on the autism scale, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen Bale do before.  Overall, the subject is fascinating, but the race made me sick, and the results were infuriating because they made me feel powerless.

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