The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Big Short

The collapse of the housing bubble, which led to the infamous government bank bailout, does not sound like an enthralling subject for a movie. Most people don't really understand it, and few things are as dry as heavily technical Wall Street trading. And if the topic seems unlikely for a mainstream movie, it's even less likely for a comedy. Yet here's The Big Short, a comedy about the housing bubble that engages to a surprising degree. Based on Michael Lewis' non-fiction best-seller, the film is a triumph just for not being boring. That's it's actually pretty great makes it all the more special.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a deeply eccentric former neurologist who got into the world of finance after leaving medicine. He comes to believe that the housing market is going to collapse as a result of too many risky subprime mortgages being carelessly issued. Few people are willing to listen to his predictions. One who does is Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a high-strung hedge fund manager with resentment toward the corruption sometimes found within the financial system. After a chance meeting with slick Wall Street banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who also knows of Burry's prediction, Baum comes up with the idea of shorting (or betting against) these mortgages. Brad Pitt co-stars as Ben Rickert, a one-time Wall Street whiz who helps two aspiring young money managers (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) get in on the action from the side after they inadvertently stumble upon Burry's outline of what could happen.

The Big Short takes a subject that is complex and humorless, and makes it understandable and funny. Director/co-writer Adam McKay (Anchorman) uses clever celebrity cameos to help explain complicated subjects. For instance, chef Anthony Bourdain adresses the audience to describe Collateralized Debt Organization (or CDO) in food-related terms. The beauty of the approach is that it mixes entertainment and information. The cameos are witty, but they also put a down-to-earth spin on jargon most of us could never hope to understand otherwise. McKay also has Jared occasionally break the fourth wall so that he can clarify a point for the viewer. In the end, you gain a firm understanding of what's happening and what it all means.

In addition to those things, the overall tone of the movie is heightened and comical. While that may seem antithetical to the subject matter, it makes everything go down much easier. If The Big Short was a drama, it would likely be dull as dishwater. Emphasizing the comically stressful nature of this fiasco as well as the personality quirks of people who get rich by betting on failure has the effect of drawing you in, so that you're right there with the film even if you normally wouldn't have any interest in subprime mortgages or CDOs.

Tremendous performances also help sell the story. At its heart, The Big Short is about a group of individuals who foresee calamity coming and figure that someone ought to profit from it. You could look at them as dirtbags or shrewd businessmen, depending on your point of view. The actors wisely keep things right down the middle, bringing out the basic humanity (good and bad) in each of them. Bale plays Burra as a quirky financial Nostradamus, sitting and waiting for the rest of the world to figure out what he already knows. Gosling is perfection as the kind of ego-driven money man who's more impressed with his own savvy than anyone else. And Pitt projects a nice world-weariness as Rickert, who thinks the system sucks but isn't above one last deal. The best performance, however, comes from Steve Carell. In his hands, Mark Baum is a believably conflicted character. He hates his job, but that's the thing he loves most about it. We sense, in many respects, that he's trying to strike a blow against the whole system, almost as if saying, If you're going to be too dumb to see what's coming, I'll make you look like the fools you are!

The Big Short is the second movie this year to deal with the housing bubble, following Ramin Bahrani's superb 99 Homes. That film looked at the issue from a personal perspective, centering on a man forced from his residence; this one comes at the subject in a more technical, behind-the-scenes way. Both call attention to the fact that people lost their homes, their savings, and their retirement funds because of the way pricey mortgages were given out to those who couldn't afford them. Both have a palpable sense of anger about the situation, too. The Big Short ends with a reminder that the responsible parties the people highest up at America's largest financial corporations didn't get prosecuted for their crimes. And they are indeed criminals.

You can laugh at the sharp one-liners, the cheeky celebrity cameos, and the farcical nature of the high-stakes game Baum, Burra, and the others are playing and you will. But when all is said and done, The Big Short will piss you off as much as it makes you laugh. That sweet-and-sour quality makes it one of the year's most vital, important films.

( out of four)

The Big Short is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.

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