Movie Review - The Big Short

Inside Job (2010) won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was about the 2008 financial crisis, involving the big investment banks on Wall Street and the housing market. This film, directed and co-written by Adam McKay, is basically a fictionalized adaptation of that documentary that also incorporates documentary footage. It's based on the book by Michael Lewis, which now makes this the third adaptation of a Michael Lewis book, the first two being The Blind Side and Moneyball. Both those films were straight-forward narratives and leaned more on the drama of it all. This film is more of an ensemble and leans more on the comedy. This approach works on occasion, possibly even more so, but not here. It just doesn't invoke as many laughs as one would hope.

Immediately, the film parallels The Wolf of Wall Street, but nowhere near is it as funny. It's perhaps not as over-the-top, which hinders it a little. The comedy isn't underlined with bold actions. It's more awkward reaction shots and the sometimes subtle looks on people's faces. It just doesn't have as propulsive a narrative as the Martin Scorsese-directed hit. It also has too much of a foot in explanations and being educational than it does in entertainment, which also hinders it. That and some characters felt superfluous.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a former medical doctor who became a hedge fund manager after starting his own investment company called Scion Capital. He's the central focus in Lewis' book, so McKay perhaps felt obliged to include him in this movie, but he becomes ultimately pointless or a waste of time really. Of the entire cast, he's the most isolated. He interacts the least with everyone else. He's almost in a movie all by himself and does things that are echoed by others or overall redundant.

Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, another hedge-fund manager who operated a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley, a securities and investment company, basically a big bank that deals with Wall Street. If this movie has a star, it's Carell. He takes more of a center stage and mostly steals the show. Given the way McKay has his cinematography, I was reminded of the American sitcom The Office of which Carell was also the star. Except, here, Carell's character is a lot smarter and morally perplexed.

Mark's three-man team accidentally discovers the impending subprime mortgage crisis and gets involved to try to make some money off it. Once Mark realizes how bad it is, how corrupt and insidious, he has to chose to be just as complicit. He's the only character about whom we learn anything deeply personal, so he's able to go on a bit of an arc that the other characters don't.

Ryan Gosling plays Jared Bennett, one of the guys capitalizing off the mortgage crisis and also contributing to it. Despite being the narrator and chief among the characters who break the fourth wall and explain things outlined in Inside Job, his character doesn't go on any kind of arc and we learn very little about him.

Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert, a banker or broker or guy who has been in the business for a long while but isn't active. He's pulled into the plot by two young investors trying to do what Jared and ultimately what Mark and Michael are doing. More is learned and identified with Ben than Jared, even though Ben has lesser screen-time.

Many in the cast get good moments, but it's not enough to make it the powerhouse that was The Wolf of Wall Street. Even by comparison, Leonardo DiCaprio's character was more despicable but I cared and was more interested in Jordan Belfort than I was for any person in this story. Even though it doesn't hold your hand as much as this, I cared and was more interested in the characters in Margin Call (2011), which is a film that deals with the exact same subject-matter.

At one point, Mark heads down to Florida to investigate the nature of the mortgage crisis and learns about the corruption with real estate leading up to the bubble bursting. It was then that I was reminded of the film from early in the fall called 99 Homes. Even though that film by Ramin Bahrani didn't address the macro-economics on display here, a lot of the same underlying issues, themes and problems are present, just in micro form. Because it develops the characters beyond the superficial, 99 Homes ends up also working a lot better than this one.

The best scene in this film is one between Carell and Melissa Leo (The Fighter and Frozen River). It lays out clearly the contradiction and hypocrisy inherent in Carell's character. It's only one scene though and his hypocrisy is never really revisited. He becomes more and more like the movie's moral compass, which comes across in scenes where Mark just looks incredulously at things, as each crazy piece of the financial scandal is revealed to him. Carell's performance is great and goes a long way. Yet, it's never enough to convince me fully of his conflict.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 10 mins.


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