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Hard Bargains

Easy, Chill, Combo, Bounce, and Sleep, and not forgetting Lebowski: just add “The Big” to any of those words and you’ve got yourself a ready-made film. The latest contender is “The Big Short,” directed by Adam McKay, and in this case the title, swaying on the verge of an oxymoron, is a perfect fit for the theme. There was nothing small about the disaster that struck the economy in 2008, and, as for shortness, the movie is peopled, from first to last, with the morally myopic and the emotionally stunted. Some characters are invented and some are all too real. You’ll love them.

Meet Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who works for an investment firm named Scion Capital. He has a medical background, and prefers to be called Dr. Burry, as if to suggest that he’s still involved in one of the caring professions. He also possesses a glass eye, an ear for heavy metal, and a busted internal radar. Socially, he makes Steve Jobs look like David Niven. (Bale can be such a chilly actor, but here he plays a chilly man, whose very gait spells bewilderment, and the result is unexpectedly touching.) As early as 2005, Burry has a hunch, grounded in laborious research, that the housing market, famed as a rock of reliability, could soon be washed away. He decides to bet against it, and word of his gamble spreads. Largely, it is greeted with derision, but it piques the interest of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), at Deutsche Bank, a kind of lizard with sideburns, who in turn persuades Mark Baum (Steve Carell), the head of a rancorous hedge fund, to join the game.

If you happen to understand credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.s, you might well enjoy “The Big Short.” If you don’t understand them, however, you’ll have a much better time. The movie is made for you. It trades on the fact that, ten years ago, no one outside the fortress of finance had the time, the will power, or the math to follow the fathomless chicanery that was taking place inside. (No wonder it could flourish with such abandon.) McKay and his co-screenwriter, Charles Randolph, working from a book by Michael Lewis, are so alert to this ignorance that, every so often, they halt the movie as sharply as a dog walker yanking on a leash. We suddenly hear the voice of Vennett, say, on the subject of Wall Street verbiage: “Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid?” He has an unusual solution: “Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.” Cut to Robbie—whom many viewers will have last seen in “The Wolf of Wall Street”—swathed in foam and holding a glass of champagne. Briskly, she unravels the problem of subprime mortgages, and adds, “Got it? Good. Now fuck off.”

What is Robbie doing here? Pretty much what Marshall McLuhan was doing in “Annie Hall,” when Woody Allen pulled him into the frame. McKay, who made the “Anchorman” films, is not on entirely unfamiliar territory; he stuffed the end credits of “The Other Guys” (2010) with animated graphics about Ponzi schemes. From those, you could argue, the whole of “The Big Short” has burst. His method here is to take the choppy, skittish, and impatient mood of modern comedy and paste it onto the story of a fiasco. The rants are exhilarating; the editing, by Hank Corwin, is a riot of faces in closeup, chats to the camera, and neon-bright montages of pop culture; even a trip to Florida, made by Baum and his team, who want to see the mortgage market in all its dysfunctional glory, comes off as a riff of jocund disbelief. Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” released in September, took a far less hasty look at the catastrophe in Florida, and at the families who felt the brunt. But that film was—no surprise—a downer, and audiences stayed away.

Robbie is not the sole provider of a cameo. We also get Anthony Bourdain, comparing a financial deal to three-day-old fish soup, and, better still, Selena Gomez and a professor of behavioral economics, who sit at a blackjack table and demonstrate how a synthetic C.D.O. functions and, ergo, to what high heaven it stinks. Do such nuggets of education succeed? They do. So, is it the solemn purpose of “The Big Short” to leave us properly informed? Give me a break. When Frank Capra made “American Madness,” in 1932, with the Wall Street crash fresh in the public mind, he dramatized a run on a bank, taking care not to let the outbreak of chaos send the movie into a spin. At every turn, we knew where the story stood. McKay, by contrast, can’t get enough of the spinning. The film is nearly as mad as the world that it sets out to expose.

That is why, with everything at its most hectic, McKay tugs at yet another strand of plot, reeling in Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), out-of-towners who trade from their garage. Hearing, by chance, of the plan to short the housing market, and yearning to cash in, they call Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a neighbor with a beard like a hedgerow and a diet to match. He was once a wizard of Wall Street, before quitting in disgust, and now, for reasons that are never clarified, he agrees to help. By this stage, McKay has got so many characters in play that only one of them, Mark Baum, is given much of a backdrop; we learn of a private sorrow, wrestled over in conversations with his wife (Marisa Tomei). Harrowed though Carell is in these scenes, we don’t really need them, because his comic tenseness has always depended on something—some disgrace or hurt—wadded down within his roles, and we latch on to Baum just by hearing him say to his colleagues, “I’m happy when I’m unhappy.”

That desperate confusion lurks at the root of “The Big Short.” Can you, in all honesty, enroll in the pursuit of happiness if it makes you wretched and leaves the happiness of others—millions of them, perhaps—in ruins? Yes, but if you do it in all dishonesty the pursuing is a lot more fun. And here’s the kicker: no one will put you in jail. McKay spends the final act attempting to whip us into a froth of outrage at the villainy that was perpetrated in the financial crisis, and at the well-dressed villains who slipped through the bars of justice. Nice try. By now, his movie has long since succumbed to its own brio. So expert are the performers that you wind up rooting for Burry, Baum, and the others despite yourself, knowing full well that they are fuelled by cynicism—by an ardent faith that the system will and must fail. They are little better than the bankers whose downfall they so gleefully engineer. “The Big Short” is a feel-good film about doom, and it pays the price. It bets on our indignation, and loses.

Source: The New Yorker, December 14, 2015 issue


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