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Review: 'The Big Short' is short on comedy, long on confusing economics

The Big Short's financial whizzes aren't wolves of Wall Street; more like mutts scrounging for scraps, those bargain investments beating the system. In 2008 they uncovered one practically demolishing the system.

Based on author Michael Lewis' autopsy of the 2008 financial markets collapse, The Big Short is now a fitful satire of a deregulated American greed-dream that anyone unfamiliar with CNBC may find tough to follow. I did, and I watch CNBC.

Movies are able to confuse and entertain simultaneously (see: Charlie Kaufman's anything). So, it's strange that director/co-writer Adam McKay taps so lightly into the fun instincts making him Will Ferrell's go-to accomplice. The humor of The Big Short is subprime, fourth-wall-breaking irony getting tiresome quickly. The crash was funnier.

That much should be understood, since misleading ads paint The Big Short as a peppy Ocean's Eleven-style caper ("Look, dear, it even has Brad Pitt"). In fact, McKay monitors three parallel stories, with bottom-rung traders who barely meet, much less conspire. Any ensemble cast prizes coming its way, by definition of ensemble, are jokes.

The smartest mutt is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), whose Spicoli personality masks a keen (glass) eye for business trends. Michael spots a bubble in the mortgage-backed security program, a lack of oversight allowing millions of loans issued to borrowers who can't possibly pay them all.

Michael bets the unthinkable, placing clients' money on "short" bets that banks backing those loans will collapse, something that never happened before. (Spoiler alert: It happens.)

While Michael sweats the inevitable, word of his gamble sneaks into the Wall Street. Flashy banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is chasing a piece when his misdialed telephone inquiry reaches hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell). The mistake makes them partners, although Mark's umbrage over greedy Wall Street practices causes friction.

Soon, relatively small-time investors Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charles Geller (John Magaro) want a piece of the action. They enlist retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who made his fortune then grew a New Age conscience, to obtain "seats at the table with the grown-ups."

McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph play this dense material straighter than necessary, drenching dialogue with financial jargon, and the screen with illustrations of nose-diving finances. McKay's most prankish touch is occasionally pausing the action to allow unqualified celebrities (Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez) to explain terminology so the scene can proceed. It's funny the first time, maybe more if you're cramming for an economics exam.

Bale and Carell are getting awards attention: Each is nominated for a Golden Globe and Bale for a Screen Actors Guild prize. Each plays his single note well, Bale as a barefoot iconoclast who's always the smartest in an uptight room and Carell dyspeptic under a bad wig, loathing his job and self. Gosling makes a snaky guide, while Pitt isn't around much and zen when he is.

In short, an instructive documentary disguised as mass entertainment. McKay's frustration about the financial crisis is obvious, his instinct of how to engage viewers less so. Buyer beware.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

The Big Short

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Whittrock, Marisa Tomei, John Magaro, Adepero Oduye, Melissa Leo

Screenplay: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph, based on the book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

Rating: R; pervasive language, brief nudity, sexuality

Running time: 130 min.

Grade: C

Review: 'The Big Short' is short on comedy, long on confusing economics 12/22/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 22, 2015 4:37pm]
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