Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Big Short


The Big Short is tragedy disguised as comedy, a podcast of dramatizations built into a movie, a collage of scattered characters and sequences glued together with flourishes of narrative happenstance. It's a true crime film, a whistle-blowing indictment, and a fourth-wall breaking metafiction designed to explain the mechanics of 2008's financial crisis while keeping you entertained.  The editing is zippy, laying down a hodgepodge of celebrity noise, pop songs, and narration that strings together the cartoonish eccentrics who bet against the housing market and won.  It's smart, it's timely, and the work it does to demystify financial abstractions is impressive.  You will leave - almost undoubtedly - feeling as though you have learned something, that you have unlocked a new section of a very large and complicated puzzle.  This is no small feat. Writer/director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) and Charles Randolph have adapted Michael Lewis's nonfiction book of the same name with a keen sense of how best to cut through the bullshit.  

The Big Short always feels and sounds like a comedy even when the moral gravity of what's being communicated is crystal clear.  We get it, and we get it in large part because the film draws us in and shows things to us without condescension. It feels like a bit like some kind of pop business school seminar: a history lesson in how a bunch of guys detected a major problem. Where past ventures of this sort tend to become patronizing or seem simplified for outsiders, The Big Short assumes you're already enrolled in the course.  

All of this is extremely positive, and many have fallen head over heels for The Big Short and its cornucopia of offerings.  There's something for everyone here, whether you want to simply appreciate Christian Bale's impressively subdued performance as a glass-eyed, Aspergian, flip-flop wearing hedge-fund manager, or, the sharp, bantering dialogue that takes over whenever Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling's characters get in the same room.  It's hard to pinpoint a specific negative about the film or McKay's techniques or motivations, and yet I found myself less than thrilled with The Big Short as a film.  There was something overly frenetic about its approach to the situation, too fast, too quick, too driven by a kind of mashed-up documentarian's sensibility. Much is shoved together, and many audience members will enjoy unpacking the glut of material on screen.  For others, connection may be difficult.  I had a problem finding a way in to The Big Short as a narrative.  While everything was expertly juggled, nothing came together in a way that felt affecting or permanent to me.  There were lessons to be learned, things to look at, much to admire, but the false notes are so very obvious.  When a momentary glimpse at a primary player's backstory feels both cloying and unnecessary (however true), something isn't quite working beyond the surface level.

All that is to say: I wasn't particularly engaged by The Big Short as a work of cinema, but I champion it as a sort of educational tool.

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