Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Why The Big Short Falls Short (in a Big Way)

(In case you missed it, I was counting down my list of the most overrated movies of the year, but I felt that this pick merited its own post. You can read the rest of the acclaimed movies that left me a bit underwhelmed here.)

So, I was lucky enough to see The Big Short before its general release, and before any reviews had been written. When the movie ended, I didn't think it was the worst film I'd ever seen, but I thought, "Well, this movie is going to be completely forgotten by the end of the year." But then it started getting really good reviews. And then it started appearing on top ten lists. And then it started getting nominated for tons of awards, and is seen as an Oscar contender for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, among other categories. As a result, to quote Jacobim Mugatu, I feel like I'm taking crazy pills here.
How fitting to quote a Will Ferrell character when talking about a film directed by Adam McKay.
I don't get it. I just don't get it. How is this film considered one of the best of the year? How is this film even considered good when it is such a mess? The response to this movie has exacerbated my own distaste for it to a considerable degree from when I first saw it (at least I can admit that I'm biased) to the point that I now really hate the movie. It is my Interstellar of this year: the movie that a lot of people seem to love, and whose appeal I simply don't comprehend.

One thing I will say is that The Big Short has a very talented cast, and they do good work here. Everyone is committed to their role. But I feel like the script didn't really allow them to be fully utilized. When actors audition for a role, they receive what's called a breakdown, which gives a rudimentary overview of what the character is like so they can prepare for the audition without reading the entire script. I mention this because I feel like everything about the performances in this film was decided from reading the breakdown. These characters never felt fully formed to me, they simply felt like character archetypes. The asocial oddball genius? That sums up Christian Bale. The grumpy asshole with a sensitive core? Steve Carell! The handsome asshole frat boy? Ryan Gosling's got you covered. Their performances are certainly consistent, but it's because they do the same thing in every scene. There's no variation. These characters never grow, and they never change. They find certain mannerisms, but these performances never extend beyond this surface level of characterization.

I will also admit that another thing The Big Short has going for it is a very important subject matter. The financial housing crisis in the early 2000's is crucial to know about, and a topic that many people--myself included--don't understand or think about as much as we probably should. And I believe that The Big Short had the best intentions, and earnestly wanted to make a movie that was accessible to a mass audience. Director Adam McKay, who co-wrote the script with Charles Randolph, probably thought, "Hey, you know what would be nuts? If we made a comedy about the housing crisis. That would be AMAZING if we pulled it off." Well, they didn't pull it off. McKay couldn't direct a comedy about the housing crisis because it's not possible to make an intelligent movie on this subject that is also funny. The two simply don't go together. Look, I love dark comedies, but the heavier subject matter and the comedy need to go hand in hand. One of my favorite films of all time, In Bruges, takes a topic you wouldn't think was comedic (two hit men who are in hiding after one of them accidentally kills an innocent child) and manages to tell a story that is both profound and hilarious. Often, the funniest moments are the darkest, with the brilliant Martin McDonagh (who wrote and directed it) understanding that the comedy and the incongruous subject matter actually enhance each other. In contrast, The Big Short feels disjointed. I didn't find it funny, but the moments that were clearly meant to be funny felt very tacked on, and felt completely different from the moments that actually talked about the housing crisis. The film never understands what tone its trying to set--is it smart, or stupid? Is it funny, or serious? Don't get me wrong, a movie can be both, but McKay is never able to find a consistent tone or weave the many threads of the movie together into a cohesive narrative.

What I'm trying to say is that the script sucks. It hides behind the gravitas of its subject matter, and again, I appreciate what it was trying to accomplish. But this is bad writing. It's lazy, it's sloppy, it's so scattered and all over the place. This script is so overwrought--it's trying so hard to educate you and to entertain you that it fails in both regards. It's the cinematic equivalent of that one teacher everyone has in high school who curses in class so that his students think he's cool (this teacher is always a dude).

"Hey guys. I'm your new English teacher, Mr. Kleinberg. But you can call me Mr. K. Now, how about for our first class, a movie! Awesome, right?! High five!"
The humor here really didn't land for me. Much like present-day episodes of Family Guy, it seemed to mistake randomness for wit. When characters break the fourth wall to make a quip, that's not funny, it's pointless and never explained. Why do some characters talk to us and some don't--what does this device add to the story? In a signature recurring bit, the film will cutaway to a celebrity cameo (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and then Selena Gomez and her friend the uncomfortable-looking economist) who explains a complex economic idea to you. Some people apparently loved these bit, I just found them annoying. It's as if they couldn't figure out how to work these ideas into the script, so they just were like, "Fuck it, we'll put Margot Robbie in a bathtub and nobody will care that we're just going to tell you this in the most lazy way possible."

"Not to mention super-empowering to women! Hey, could you guess that we don't pass the Bechdel test?"
I think the accolades for this script comes down to what I call the Badfellas effect. See, there are lots of really well-written movies like Goodfellas (or Glengarry Glen Ross, or most things written by Aaron Sorkin) where the dialogue is really sharp and has this great rhythm to it so it has to be delivered really quickly. Those are great scripts. But because of how influential movies like Goodfellas are, there have since been numerous copycats, which think that if the actors read their dialogue really quickly, that must make it good! You don't need smart snappy dialogue, as long as you focus on the snappy part. And the problem is that people fall for it. Just because this movie wants to be Goodfellas, that doesn't make it Goodfellas. Let me ask all the fans of this movie--is there a single line that you remember from this film? Can you mention a single scene you thought was genuinely well-written? I found everything about this script's demeanor obnoxious. I thought its attempts at humor were amateur at best, and flat out insulting at worst. It detracted from what should have been a really strong and meaningful story. The film was smug and in your face, and lost any semblance of endearment that it could have garnered, which made me lost interest in it fairly quickly.

But here's the worst part of The Big Short for me: there were no stakes. Stakes are the root of all drama, but The Big Short wasn't able to derive actual stakes out of one of the most devastating economic crises of all time. The Big Short wants you to be outraged at how the corporate world and the big banks are taking advantage of us, but it completely ignores the people who were most taken advantage of. The protagonists of the movie are a) not all that likable and b) incredibly unsympathetic. For those who don't know, the main characters of this movie are fictional representations (some of them use the real peoples' names and some don't) of the few stock traders who were able to predict the financial crisis. To be clear, they didn't try to stop the financial crisis from happening (not that they would have been able to, mind you), but instead they bet money on it. In other words, when the crisis occurred, they all made lots of money because they were the only ones who predicted this had happened.

Meaning that for every single major character in this film, the financial collapse that this movie rightfully claims was a horrible thing is not only not surprising, but also not that bad of a thing. So even though we're told over and over again how devastating this was, we're not actually shown evidence, at least not evidence derived from the characters the movie is actually about. The movie itself points out this discrepancy. After making several trades, two characters played by Finn Wittrock and John Magaro (I don't remember their names) are celebrating when their mentor, played by Brad Pitt, chastises them. Pitt, who is a producer on this film, has once again cast himself in a crucial role as a person without flaws, as he did in 12 Years a Slave. He plays Ben, who the movie would have us believe is the best at math and also the only person on earth with a conscience. Anyway, Ben points out that they're celebrating the downfall of the American economy, and even though they'll be very rich, this isn't something to celebrate. They look sad. And that's the main problem with The Big Short--the consequences of this economic disaster is only demonstrated by these characters looking sad. The one who looks saddest is Steve Carell. Every time a banker says something evil, Steve Carell looks sad or gets angry. And he's sad and angry a lot. He's meant to be the moral barometer of this film. Maybe that's why he's the only character who's given any semblance of backstory. Apparently, his brother committed suicide. It's mentioned in two whole scenes and feels very shoe-horned in. Steve Carell is very sad about it.

There was another movie about the housing crisis that came out this year called 99 Homes. This film doesn't attempt to explain why the housing crisis happened, it chooses to focus on the low-income families whose lives were destroyed by it. There are several scenes of people being evicted from their homes which are emotionally devastating. The movie shows good people, real people, who are trying their best in a bad situation, and stuck with nowhere to go. They end up losing their homes, losing their lives, and losing their dignity, and are desperately looking for a way to a better life, even though there isn't one. 99 Homes doesn't feature any wall street bankers, but it does have Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), one of the best villains of the year. Rick is a real estate mogul who has found a way to rig the system to his advantage and encourages Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a hardworking man who Rick just evicted from his home, to work for him. Dennis is conflicted because Rick embodies everything Dennis thinks is wrong with the world. And yet, Rick's offering the only viable solution Dennis sees for a better life. By focusing on its characters, 99 Homes is an artistic embodiment of what the crisis really is about. It doesn't go into statistics, but watching it, you truly understand the situation on an emotional level. Dennis represents how good things can be corrupted. Rick represents greed and ruthlessness better than any character I've seen since Gordon Gekko. Where The Big Short tells you what happened, 99 Homes actually shows you why it's important.

But hey, in The Big Short, Steve Carell looks sad. And that's apparently Oscar-worthy.

And he's not even THAT sad.
The Big Short succeeds perfectly fine in terms of educating its audience. I think they could have done a better job explaining things, but if that it's purpose then it succeeded in that regard at the very least. Although I'm sure anyone who ignored the movie and just read the book it was based on would be far more informed. However, as a piece of art--which is why film is--it simply doesn't work. Subject matter does not a movie make. The Big Short feels absolutely phoned in, and that simply isn't good enough.

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