A funny thing happened to comedy directors Jay Roach (of the Austin Powers movies and Meet the Parents) and Adam McKay (Anchorman)–they became political filmmakers. For HBO, Roach made Recount (2008) and Game Change (2012), and now has the biopic Trumbo in release. McKay, who directed his longtime collaborator Will Ferrell in the pointed Broadway satire You’re Welcome America. A Final Night with George W. Bush (2009), returns to the arena with an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ bestseller about the financial meltdown, The Big Short.
Both new films show the advantage of a light touch, and the downside. Trumbo, from the life of the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter, is a lively example of the “movies about movies and moviemakers” genre that springs up every awards season, but almost too cartoonish, and in simplifying a complex history slurs Edward G. Robinson and John Wayne, whose involvement in the era wasn’t so clearcut. Realizing we’ll soon be drowning in financial legerdemain, The Big Short breaks the fourth wall early on to bring in a bubble-bathing Margot Robbie, who breathlessly explains the particulars of junk bonds before telling us to “piss off” and return to the movie. It’s a funny device–once. But the movie repeats it, like the stand-up who won’t leave the stage.
Lewis’ books The Blind Side and Moneyball were more easily brought to the screen, both star vehicles with appealing sports hooks. The Big Short is a colder read, one that casts a jaundiced eye on low-level money manipulators and the heavily flawed system meant to protect us from them, a system that turned a blind eye to their machinations and, worse, to those of the entrenched financial institutions that were peddling garbage for years. (Doing that thing Melissa Leo does, where she hijacks a movie in a scene or two, she appears as a Standard and Poor’s auditor, who’s…blind. These are the jokes, kids.) In Lewis’ telling, the bottom feeders are in their own way the good guys, exposing the defects and practically begging to be exposed as their ships come in, while the worldwide economy is washed away in a tsunami of rotten banking instruments they’ve wisely bet against.
From a script co-written with Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs), McKay tells it like American Hustle (2013), with a quartet of stars buried under hairpieces, quirks, and tics. (And interacting only sporadically; each spends a lot of time on his phone or computer.) There’s trader Christian Bale, blind in one eye and afflicted with Asperger’s; money manager Steve Carell, an unkempt doomsayer who screams a lot and conceals heartache; germophobic financial strategist Brad Pitt, who wears a surgical mask in public and makes pronouncements; and shark-like banker Ryan Gosling, who narrates. He sets the film in motion by roping the reluctant Carell into his plans to “short” the rapidly expanding markets, which smell fishy but are, to Carell’s dismay, completely legit.
For about 90 of its 130 minutes, The Big Short labors to maintain a sense of cockeyed humor on the edge of an abyss, and plays like a docudrama with occasional laughs. (Lots of handheld camera for that “you are there” feeling.) Then comes what exploitation hucksters peddling adults-only “birth of a baby” and VD movies back in the 30s and 40s call the “square-up reel,” where evildoers are punished for the wicked activity we’d been enjoying. Except that this one lasts several reels, as consciences are suddenly acquired, personal revelations come tumbling out, and Carell rails some more at the bankrupt system. (Oscar nomination or not, I’m still not sold on him as some sort of master thespian, and the movie dies a little each time he vents his spleen. Then again everyone pushes too hard, with only Gosling finding the right, pettily larcenous tone.) The Big Short becomes very longwinded about a history we’re still living, and McKay stretches the speeches as much as he stretches the jokes in his excessive Anchorman movies. If you’re looking to get depressed all over again about the Great Recession, let me refer you to the brushstrokes of the excellent, fictionalized Margin Call (2011), which I prefer to the broad strokes of McKay and his Wall Street clowns.
A few weeks ago, I recommended Room, Spotlight, and Brooklyn. Today I recommend…Room, Spotlight, and Brooklyn. Macbeth, Legend, The Danish Girl, skip, skip, skip. (If Eddie Redmayne triggers you, stay far, far away from The Danish Girl.) Maggie Smith has earned the right to coast but she’s far from complacent in The Lady in the Van, and her portrayal of a homeless enigma parked in a driveway is reason to see this adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play. (Don’t see it for James Corden, whose entire cameo is included in its trailer.) Honorary Oscar winner Spike Lee’s Chi-raq is lively if discombobulated agitprop, with the presence of Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, and Wesley Snipes giving it the air of a class reunion amidst lectures about gun and gang violence. Like all of Todd Haynes’ films, Carol is too studied and aestheticized to really connect, yet it’s beautifully mounted, with 50s fashions for Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara to swan around in and Super 16mm cinematography by Ed Lachman that’s like a symphony in green. Bask in it.