The Big Short – A Review

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When I heard that Adam McKay (Funny or Die, Anchorman) was directing a movie about the 2008 economic collapse, I was a little confused. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of humor in what happened on Wall Street, so I wasn’t quite sure what McKay was bringing to the table. The man who brought us Ron Burgundy wasn’t the person that I expected to adapt Michael Lewis’ book about the housing credit bubble finally bursting. However, McKay had assembled an all-star cast and I’ve enjoyed all the other adaptations of Lewis’ books, so I figured that there was something to this project that I just wasn’t seeing that would make this partnership make sense.

Turns out that McKay might have been the perfect person for this job, as The Big Short finds humor in the lunacy of the behavior that contributed to the recent recession while at the same time educating the viewer on what things like subprime loans, CDOs and bond ratings are without being boring. The Big Short will make you laugh, make you angry, and make you smarter about economics all at the same time – no small feat. It’s rare when a cast of such famous people can all disappear into their roles, but Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt do just that. The Big Short will make you chuckle, but this is not necessarily a comedy; there is a slow burn of anger that is simmering just under the surface of this film and if you don’t walk out of this film a little more outraged than when you walked in, there is no hope for this country.

The Big Short tells the story about a handful of investors who saw what so many people missed or willfully ignored – the pending housing collapse caused by banks giving out loans like candy to people, many of whom were in over their heads financially. Hedge Fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) crunches the numbers and realizes that the housing market is being artificially supported by a series of subprime loans; when interest rates on these loans increase in 2008, Burry predicts that there will be many people who will default on their mortgages. He approaches numerous banks and asks to essentially bet against the housing market; the banks, believing that the housing market is secure and that this is easy money for them, accept this offer with no thought to the potential catastrophic economic impact that will result if Burry is right. Other investors, including Jared Vennett (Gosling), Mark Baum (Carell), Charlie Geller (John Magano) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) hear about Burry’s investment and agree with his analysis. Further analysis by Baum’s team lends further credibility to Burry’s predictions – rating agencies are inflating ratings on bad loans to keep the bank’s business and that mortgage brokers are not even conducting preliminary background checks on potential loan recipients. All the investors bet against the market and essentially profiting from the pending economic meltdown that will cost thousands of people their job, their pensions and their homes.

This could have been an extremely boring film, but the development of the personalities of the individual investors helps keep this film from feeling like an economics lecture from Ben Stein. Christian Bale’s Murray is definitely an eccentric – a former M.D., he analyzes trends while barefoot and blaring heavy metal – and that gives Bale a lot to work with. Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert serves as the conscious of the film, reminding his friends Geller and Shipley that their profit will come at the expense of a lot of people’s suffering. Steve Carell’s character is full of self-righteous anger at a system that is not only fiddling while Rome burns, but irresponsibly throwing gasoline on the fire.

The film also uses an innovative technique to explain some of the more technical terms and concepts that contributed to the collapse; it breaks the fourth wall and uses celebrity cameos to provide insight into what these intentionally confusing words actually mean. I have a degree in economics, so I’m probably a more willing audience than most, but having Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining sub-prime loans is perhaps the most accessible way to make people understand what exactly was happening. Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez are used similarly (minus the bathtub). These bits are of course humorous, but they are also educational; I walked out of The Big Short with a much clearer picture of how the economic recession of 2008 came to pass. And the more that you understand what happened, the more incensed you become. If you weren’t already mad at bankers for their role in the collapse, you will be after The Big Short, especially after you are reminded how little they paid for their negligent behavior. The Big Short may mine the crisis for laughs, but make no mistake about it that this film also wants you to be infuriated as well. The film smartly doesn’t lecture, but  under the farcical behavior  there is an undercurrent of anger that eventually becomes palpable.

Some other thoughts:

  • This film is lucky enough to boast all-star actors in even the smallest of performances; Oscar winner Melissa Leo briefly appears as an employee at the rating agency. Marissa Tomei also has a small part as Carrell’s wife.
  • I’m really only familiar with Finn Wittrock from his work on American Horror Story, so I was kind of conditioned to think that when he appeared he was going to kill everyone. Sadly, he didn’t slice up even one banker, which would have made for an even more satisfying movie.
  • I would 100% sign up for an economics class taught by Anthony Bourdain.
  • This shouldn’t be a deciding factor in seeing the film, but Gosling and Pitt have much less screen time than Carrell and Bale.
  • Bale’s character rocks out to Metallica in the movie, which makes him aces in my book.
  • Even though you are rooting for all the investors in the film, they aren’t heroes. They all profit from this broken system, with varying impacts on their consciences. In a way, they are the lesser of two evils.

The Big Short manages to do what many people would think is unthinkable – create a movie that doubles as both entertainment and an economics lecture. The stellar cast and smart directing choices makes The Big Short an immensely watchable film that also serves as a primer for understanding why the global recession of 2008 occurred. It’s a fun, yet frustrating movie, since it is clear that because so few people were held accountable for their role in the collapse, they continue their dangerous practices, just under another name. The Big Short is a smart and funny movie that will also make you angry. It’s a heist movie, a satire and true crime, all rolled into one.

Sneak Peek – American Hustle

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The 1927 New York Yankees were dubbed Murderers’ Row because of their spectacularly stacked batting lineup. The first six batters in particular – Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri – were so good and effective at the plate that they could kill any pitcher that was unfortunate to throw them the wrong pitch. Anyone of them could get you; if you were lucky enough to strike out Keonig, you still had to face Ruth and Gehrig. That team was blessed with an inordinate amount of talent and could do some devastating damage at the plate.

I bring this up not because I am a Yankees fan, but because David O. Russell’s new film American Hustle reminds me of the 1927 Yankees. Russell has taken the great actors that the worked with in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook and has brought them all together to create the acting equivalent of Murderers’ Row: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner. No director should be so lucky to have all these amazing actors to play with; this acting lineup is so good that you have Louis CK and Robert DeNiro in this film “batting” sixth and seventh. I honestly didn’t even know either of them was in the film before I went to a preview earlier this month. American Hustle is like my dream cast assembled.

Of course, you can have all the acting talent in the world in your movie and it doesn’t mean a hill of beans if you don’t know how to properly use it. American Hustle had a lot of potential, but could it live up to the caliber of actor that had been amassed. The answer is a resounding yes; American Hustle is the most fun that I’ve had at the theater in a very, very long time. Though I saw this film in the beginning of December, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It was so good that I may have to go see it again when it is finally released this weekend. For once, there is a movie that lives up to the hype.

If you have seen the previews for American Hustle, you know that this film takes place in the 70s – that much is evident from the clothing, hair and music that are used. What you may not know is that the film takes place against the backdrop of the Abscam scandal, though the film is very upfront about the fact that it is playing fast and loose with the facts. This film isn’t Argo; it gets the decade right but everything else is questionable. Irving (Bale) and Sydney (Adams) are small con artists that are partners in love and hustling. When their scheme is uncovered by ambitious FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), they are forced into working with him to bring down larger targets to earn their freedom. One such target is Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, NJ who is willing to make some questionable deals to bring back his city. They are all thrown down the rabbit hole of Jersey politics and Mafia connections and it isn’t clear who is being loyal to whom. The real wildcard in their elaborate con is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence), who is so unpredictable and volatile that she could easily destroy everything.

Every actor in this film is absolutely tremendous; they are like kids in a candy store and go for broke in each and every scene. It is so clear that they are having fun with the juicy material and they work incredibly well with one another. Bale is almost unrecognizable with his balding hair and paunch, but he is so charming and smart that you understand why both Adams and Lawrence fell in love with him. This film is a good reminder that Bale is capable of way more than being The Dark Knight; it’s the best I’ve seen him in a while. I have always adored Amy Adams and she is at the top of her game in American Hustle. Sydney brings her own baggage to the table and of all the characters in the ensemble she is the one whose motives are the hardest to determine. She’s just great and looks amazing doing it. Cooper is so good as DiMaso; though he’s made a name for himself lately as a more dramatic actor, American Hustle shows that he can knock it out of the part when he’s given a well written comedy. DiMaso’s ambition makes him reckless and Cooper’s increasingly erratic behavior and inflated sense of importance are a fascinating transformation to watch. He really becomes unhinged. Renner’s previous roles tend to require him to be hard and scowling, so it is nice change of pace to see him smile as much as he does during American Hustle. He artfully demonstrates Polito’s heart and love of community, making the character more nuanced than the typical target of a scam. His Frankie Valli pompadour is really a sight to behold.

And then there is Jennifer Lawrence, who even among this beautiful and talented cast is able to pretty much steal ever scene that she is in. This woman has no right being as good at her craft at such a young age, but she nails every scene that she is in. She is so very funny and so ridiculous that the movie kicks into a different gear every time she appears on screen. She just continues to be amazing in everything that she does and Russell brings out the absolute best in her.

The story has so many twists and turns and shifting allegiances that I really had no idea who was playing whom at any given time or how the film was going to resolve itself. It’s a real rollercoaster ride and the film zigs when you expect it to zag. Between the mesmerizing performances and the dazzling camera work, the audience never knows what is going to happen. It’s just whole lot of fun and outrageously entertaining.

The one knock that I’ll put on American Hustle is that I’m not sure how much the story actually holds up under close scrutiny. Because the audience is so disoriented and overstimulated from all that is going on, it is quite possible that we are getting hustled as well. I was enjoying the ride so much that I didn’t have time to analyze what I was actually seeing (unlike The Desolation of Smaug, where I had plenty of downtime to think about plot holes and weaknesses). Ultimately, I don’t really care if this film is actually just a dressed up trifle; it was such a sharp and exciting film that I was completely satisfied with the finished product.

Some other thoughts:

  • I have a weird fascination with the 70s, so I totally ate up all the fashion and the music in the film. I think half the reason I was so excited to see American Hustle was their use of Led Zeppelin in the original trailer.
  • It is worth plunking down your hard-earned cash just to see Bradley Cooper in curlers. That perm deserves its own Academy Award.
  • Russell also knows how to get the best out of Robert DeNiro; his role is small, but he’s great as well. And Louis CK is just perfect as Cooper’s exasperated supervisor.
  • The microwave over scene in the film absolutely KILLED at my screening. That may have been the hardest that people laughed in the entire movie. Have I said Jennifer Lawrence is the best?
  • If you enjoy seeing Bradley Cooper dancing – and who doesn’t – you won’t be disappointed.
  • There is a definite Goodfellas vibe to the film, which is probably the highest compliment I could give it. Russell channels his inner Scorsese in more than a few shots.

I just straight up loved this movie – between the performances and the camera work and the awesome retro costumes it was an exhilarating ride. I can’t say that it is the best film of the year, but I can say that it is probably my favorite (sorry Mud – you had a really good run). It isn’t a serious film, but it was a really pleasurable movie going experience. The sign of a good movie is that as soon as I see it I want to talk about it; with American Hustle, I was barely out of the theater before I was texting people to make sure that they saw this movie when it came out. David O. Russell makes the most of his dream team cast and delivers a spectacular film.

 

American Hustle opens nationwide on Friday December 20th.

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Time on My Hands edition

Because I had such a slow weekend last weekend, I had a lot of free time to surf the web and collect news stories the few hours that I wasn’t watching House of Cards or sleeping. My boring weekend is your gain – this week’s edition of the pop culture roundup is jam packed with fun stuff. But don’t get too used to this – I think my next completely free weekend is sometime in October.

  • Jon Stewart is taking a three month hiatus from The Daily Show.  John Oliver will fill in as host.
  • Speaking of The Daily Show, this recent segment on maple syrup slayed me. I was literally laughing out loud. Well done.

 

  • Rest in Peace, Bonnie Franklin. The actress, best known from One Day at a Time, passed away at the age of 69.
  • I don’t watch the show Switched at Birth, but this is very cool – Monday night’s episode was done entirely in sign language.
  • Happy birthday to The Big Lebowski, which turns 15 years old today! The Dude continues to abide.
  • This doesn’t quite reach the beauty of the death star construction request, but there is an active petition request to the Obama Administration to change the national anthem to R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix).” I’m not saying it is a good idea, but that would be way more fun way to kick off sporting events (added bonus – no high notes):

What’s more American than “it’s the freaking weekend, I’m about to have me some fun?”

  • My red hot disdain of Kristen Stewart has been duly noted on the blog, but she doesn’t have a monopoly on my fury. In fact, I might even despise Taylor Swift more. Her latest crime? Implying that Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are going to hell because of a joke they told about Swift at the Golden Globes.
  • While we’re on the subject of people who I dislike, Halle Berry is confirmed to appear in the new X-men movie.
  • The Hold Steady is recording a song for the third season of Game of Thrones, lyrics by George R.R. Martin.
  • A trailer for the new season of Mad Men has been released. Can’t wait!

 

  • A new trailer for Iron Man 3 was released yesterday:

 

  • Fox has renewed The Following, New Girl, Raising Hope and The Mindy Project.
  • Joan Rivers has launched a new webseries where she interviews celebrities in bed.
  • Ben McKenzie has been cast in a pilot at CBS, which means that the renewal of Southland is not a sure thing.
  • I still don’t understand what is going on with Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-un.
  • Ha! This timely House of Cards parody, House of Cardinals, gets the tone just right.

 

  • Color me intrigued – Christian Bale is rumored to be reprising his role as Batman in the upcoming Justice League movie.
  • It pains me to say this, but the new episodes of Community this season haven’t been good. However, I am intrigued by the idea of doing an all-puppet episode.
  • Tyler Kitsch has resurfaced. He’ll appear in the HBO movie The Normal Heart.
  • Watch Mark Wahlberg and Diddy play a drinking game on Ellen:

 

  • Wahlberg hasn’t closed the door on a reunion with the Funky Bunch. This is a terrible idea, but I totally hope this happens.
  • I’m super excited to possibly be going to see Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake play Yankee Stadium this summer. One person I can guarantee won’t be there is Kanye West.
  • JT will be hosting Saturday Night Live this weekend and will be on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon every night next week. I can only assume “The History of Rap, Part 4” is in the works.
  • How bad have things gotten for NBC? A local affiliate has opted to air Matlock instead of the network’s Thursday night’s lineup.
  • This sounds interesting – Speilberg is developing a miniseries about Napoleon that was written by Stanley Kubrik.
  • Albany peeps – local musician Sean Rowe made his national television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Monday night. Good for him!

 

  • In pilot news, Naveen Andrews (Sayid, Lost) has landed a role in an ABC drama.
  • Presented without comment – Gary Busey discussing hobbits:

 

  • Feeling lucky? A new website will randomly select a Nicholas Cage movie for you to watch (Netflix streaming account required)
  • The George Lucas museum is coming to San Francisco.
  • This is disappointing – Sam Mendes will not return to direct the next James Bond film.
  • Carrie Fisher will return as Princess Leia in the new Star Wars movie.
  • This may be the greatest interview of all time. I already like Mila Kunis beforehand, but this sealed the deal. Gotta support a fellow Blue Moon fan.

 

  • Neat-O. A portrait of Stephen Colbert, made up of all the words uttered on The Colbert report:

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  • Jason Bateman will team up with Tina Fey in This Is Where I Leave You. The funny duo will play siblings.
  • 90210 is ending its run at the end of this season. I honestly didn’t even know this show was still on.
  • Alexis Bledel (Rory, The Gilmore Girls) is returning to TV is a starring role in a comedy pilot for Fox.
  • Jon Hamm voiced a talking toilet on this week’s Bob’s Burgers and it was glorious:

 

  • Tom Hardy will appear on Discovery Channel’s new show, Driven to Extremes.
  • This mash up of “Call Me Maybe” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole” is actually pretty catchy:

 

  • Just because it is awesome, the opening credits of the Dutch version of Golden Girls:

You can check out versions from other countries here.

  • If you ever dreamed of owning a closet like Cher’s in Clueless, you are in luck. We have the technology.
  • Happy news – both Jimmy Smits and Donal Logue will return next season on Sons of Anarchy.
  • And finally……A Star Wars/School House Rock mash-up:

 

See a story that you think should be included in these bi-weekly roundups? Want to see your name in the blog? Want to do my job for me? Feel free to send any suggestions my way via the blog’s Facebook page, the blog’s twitter account (@AsHeathersworld) or in the comments section of this post. I post random pop culture stories on Facebook, so don’t forget to like the page so you don’t miss anything. Thanks to avid blog reader and faux-cousin Chris for the suggestion!