Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Short Review

Last night, I went to see The Big Short -- the potential Oscar contender about the mortgage crisis that almost collapsed the world economy in 2008. Interestingly, it's directed by Adam McKay, the director of Anchorman and its sequel. That speaks a lot about the tone of the film; though it's far from an outright comedy, there's a lot of humor in it, and long stretches of the movie are surprisingly light in tone.

This is all part of a clever script (by McKay and Charles Randolph, based on a book by Michael Lewis) that understands the need for this film to be light. For starters, though it's the real story about how millions of lives were ruined as people lost their homes, jobs, and retirement plans, it's specifically about a number of investors who knew it was coming and bet money that it would happen. The only way to keep the actual horror/disgust of it all at arm's distance, the only way to make the characters remotely sympathetic, was to make it rather funny.

The second smart move is to have the film break the fourth wall a lot. Multiple characters speak directly to the audience all throughout the movie, and it even opens with a narration directly into camera. When boring, inscrutable banking terminology comes along, a character throws it over to a celebrity cameo to explain it. This all has the combined effect of keeping reality at a playful remove until the carefully chosen moments when it's meant to be examined more closely.

Mostly, those moments come through the character of Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell. Cementing his status as a dramatic actor (begun in Foxcatcher), Carell stands out as a real star in this ensemble cast. His character is driven by an unresolved rage and sadness that's constantly leaking out in tiny bursts. It's a well modulated and realistic performance that anchors the overall playfulness of the movie and lends it the moments of gravitas it needs. And no, two years ago, you would never have thought Carell to be be the serious one among this ensemble.

Another standout is Ryan Gosling, who plays a perfectly smarmy investor -- and is responsible for most of the narrations and asides to the audience. He's the closest thing this story has to a villain, but he's a weirdly likable and funny one. But even if Carell and Gosling draw the most attention, it's not like there isn't plenty of good acting throughout this cast. Christian Bale vanishes into another meticulously sculpted character, Brad Pitt is tightly restrained, Max Greenfield oozes the sort of punchability he's made his signature, and Marissa Tomei and Karen Gillan both make the most of two small appearances. You may well also recognize Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, Finn Wittrock, and more. It's a rock solid ensemble.

The Big Short is certainly worth seeing, and I expect its chances of scoring a Best Picture nomination are pretty good. That said, my enthusiasm is a touch restrained. I'd give it a B+ overall; it wouldn't be my pick to actually take home the Oscar.

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