Friday, January 15, 2016

Review: "The Big Short" Makes Economics Sound Easy, But That's It

Ryan Gosling
In 2010, director Adam McKay received a lot of attention for his film The Other Guys. While the film itself was a comedy familiar to his style, the closing credits held some staggering information. As the credits rolled, it was accompanied by images of how a Ponzi Scheme worked. In a sense, McKay was trying to make something accessible to viewers who are more likely to watch Will Ferrell movies than read the daily stock trade. Five years later, he returns to the world of economics with The Big Short: a film with a big cast and an even bigger goal - to show the housing market collapse in an accessible way. Incorporating pop art techniques, McKay has done a noble job in at least making one of the flashiest films of the year. However, it's up to the viewer whether or not the stylized power point will make a difference.

If there's one thing that's conflicting in modern cinema, it's trying to make a film about economics. The general hurdle comes from middle and lower class Americans' forcing to suspend disbelief and empathize with millionaires who are money hungry. There's no way for audiences to even begin to relate, as they already feel screwed over by the protagonist. Even when a film successfully shows the negligence of Wall Street (The Wolf of Wall Street), there's a sense of confusion as to why we should care. We're the ones who were screwed over, and now a film made for a couple million that we paid to see is telling us how they took our money and are doing better than we'll ever be. In a sense, cinema about the economy feels more depressing than a Lars von Trier film solely because you feel like you got swindled twice (and have to be laughed at for reasons being your means).

Despite the lingering sense that drags movies like this down, credit must be given to McKay. What he has created is possibly one of the most intriguing takes on one of the economic collapses of the young 21st century. While the subject is relatively familiar (the housing market did collapse at the end), the approach feels more like an embodiment of the culture that surrounded it. McKay's direction encapsulates the mid-00's by mixing the familiar capitalist jingles of the era (notably Ludacris' "Money Maker") while having the narrator (Ryan Gosling) comically guide us through the nooks and crannies - even explaining things with a Jenga set and various celebrity cameos. The direction is quick, cutting across pop culture staples that embody that capitalism longing that most don't realize has always been there. If nothing else, this film feels lived in and familiar and goes beyond the board room aesthetic that films like Wall Street feel is as far as things can go.

What McKay has created is a pop movie. Despite being a departure for him subject-wise, the film is also his most ambitious in bringing every cultural tendency of the time into one fascinating collage to tell a singular story. The lectures are there and half of the words require a dictionary to follow. Still, it's a film that uses the angles and cuts of an action film to show characters hard at work. It even feels at times like it's borrowing from mockumentary staples (notably The Office, likely due to Steve Carrell's over-the-top presence). Still, it's a film that uses it all to show how the economy relates to us. It may be a slide show, but even the weird choices to provide exposition from bubble baths or gambling rooms adds a compelling touch. There's no denying (at least we should hope) that McKay knows what he's talking about. This film, while likely seem dated in 10 years stylistically, does an admirable job of making droll subject matter relate to the people we never see: the victims of the housing collapse.

The issue may start to come in with how well you want cinema to tell you these things. At 130 minutes, the film is an exhaustive journey into style that gets at times redundant. The snarky attitudes of the large cast begins to seem too antagonistic. After all, the main action is drawn from privileged white men discussing money. It's not a compelling drive for a movie. Even if the film wants to subvert the way it's spoken about, it's still an invisible figure that doesn't seem to matter. By the end, these people's lives aren't as impacted as everyone else's will be. They'll still get the spoiled life. It is the issue of perspective, as it becomes very hard to sympathize with a power that oppresses the viewer in real life. If you care about money, you may get something out of it. However, if you are just a viewer seeing this because of its Oscar chances, it may seem like rich people twiddling thumbs for two hours.

The performances are adequate. Among the more noteworthy is Christian Bale, whose character is a flip flop-wearing man who listens to heavy metal for motivation and rarely leaves his office. He is a goofy and strange figure that does so much with so little. By comparison, everyone else is the familiar rich pretty boy whose lives don't matter. They'll always smile and yell when the money doesn't go their way. It may be an intentional way to upset the viewer, but why add layers to certain aspects then? There's insignificant family members and tangential conversations that mean very little. In a sense, this film fails not because it doesn't do its subject justice. It doesn't do its characters justice. There's neither too much to love or hate about them. They are side attractions to the information, which makes this whole thing feel like more of a slide show than a film. With that said, it may be what some need to research these events on their own. However, I'd argue that it would be a more effective use of your time.

The Big Short is a compelling film in what it tries to do. For the most part, it works at expounding information in ways that are stylish and reflective of the media that distracts from it. One could easily feel like they learned things subliminally about the economy while watching by how McKay manages to put it in through creative and often comical means. The only issue from there is how you take your information. If the idea of being lectured by the fat cats who took your money seems plausible, then it may turn out to be a good movie. However, the other side may just feel like they've been swindled. Is it a bad film? No. It's just one that asks you to empathize with some of the least likable people in modern America - and that's too difficult for me.

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