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February 3, 2016

The Big Short Supplies What Viewers Demand

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The man behind Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy may seem like an unlikely choice to helm a film educating its audience about the economic principles behind the American real estate market. But The Big Short — an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book about the 2008 collapse of the housing bubble that left the country in financial crisis — is exuberantly directed by Adam McKay, who absolutely nails the telling of this tragic story. McKay succeeds by turning a distressing topic into, at points, a comedy.

The Big Short follows three separate stories of investment experts who bet against the housing market. Whereas everyone else believes the market to be rock solid, it is actually supported by high-risk loans doomed to fail. As the characters investigate further, they discover that the problem is being compounded by outright fraud and ignorance by nearly everyone on Wall Street. While we watch them peel back the market’s layers, McKay invites us to join him in wondering, “How could this have happened?”

When a director is this passionate about his work, you can tell, and what McKay does with The Big Short is incredibly creative. He pulls out all the stops, knowing that he could easily lose his audience with a script comprising almost exclusively of office meetings and phone calls about a technical subject matter. McKay throws in montages of real music videos and news clips to give us a better sense of the time period. To make the action feel more authentic, he uses the unrefined documentary style of filming, with the camera abruptly zooming in and out of people’s faces. Timely fourth wall breaks give us a chance to catch up to his frenetic pace and make sure we understand what the heck is going on. Furthermore, celebrity cameos that serve to explain complicated terminology make for some of the most memorable scenes. Consider, for example, chef Anthony Bourdain showing up to describe how a collateralized debt obligation is just like throwing lots of old, unsellable fish into a brand new seafood stew. (It makes perfect sense now!)

It was a treat to see four of my favorite male actors in the same movie. The entire cast could not be more on point, nor could their wigs. Ryan Gosling is hilariously over-the-top as the polished, well-dressed trader Jared Vennett who narrates the film to perfection. He looks like he is having the time of his life in The Big Short. If he were an economics professor at Cornell, I would be an econ major. Steve Carell is also perfect as Mark Baum, a hedge fund manager disgusted with all the corruption around him on Wall Street and eager to profit off the banks’ dishonesty. Carell’s chemistry with Gosling is still there from Crazy, Stupid, Love four years ago, and the two feed off each other’s energy in several scenes involving witty, fast-paced and often blatantly offensive dialogue.

Christian Bale is, if not the best actor working today, certainly among the most versatile. He is also the master of physical transformation. In the span of ten years alone he portrayed a 120-pound insomniac (The Machinist), Batman, a 145-pound ex-boxer and drug addict (The Fighter), Batman again and a 230-pound 1970s con man (American Hustle), in that order. In The Big Short, he plays his first character with a normal BMI. Bale totally loses himself in the role of Dr. Michael Burry, a number-crunching hedge fund manager with Asperger’s Syndrome who recognizes the instability of the U.S. housing market as early as 2005. Bale fully embodies Burry’s eccentric yet socially inept personality to the extent that he even forces one of his eyes to not move so that he appears to have a glass eye. He is incredible.

Brad Pitt is uproariously funny as the constantly paranoid Ben Rickert, a banker coaxed out of retirement by two young investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), to help them get rich by betting against the housing market. The film’s trailer leads you to believe that he is a main character even though he is really only appears for comic relief (although every character provides comic relief at one point or another). He does, however, deliver the essential line of the movie when he reproaches Geller and Shipley for celebrating their financial success while disregarding the unemployment and suffering that the impending collapse of the American economy will bring.

The film’s protagonists aren’t your traditional heroes — their achievement is making millions of dollars for themselves off the economic failures of the country. Most of their personalities come off as fairly detestable, although they are so hysterical that you want to like them anyway. Making his main characters morally reprehensible is yet another way McKay outlets his palpable anger towards the greed and deceit that took place on Wall Street in the years leading up to the crash.

Amidst all the gimmicks, the movie never forgets to remind us of the countless lives that were ruined by fraud. We get a glimpse of a homeless family transporting everything they own in a minivan. Baum sits in silence on a rooftop feeling guilty about accepting his profits. The Big Short is most effective in these brief moments. You will leave the movie frustrated, not only because you’ve been informed about the immorality of what really happened, but because McKay just made you laugh at it for two hours. You actually watched a horror movie disguised as a comedy. Worthy of winning Best Picture, The Big Short is, in the words of the understated Ben Rickert, “Kinda brilliant.”

Lev Akabas is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at la286@cornell.edu

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