The Big Short – 2.5 stars

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Adam McKay’s The Big Short is ingenious, economical, and expert in translating a difficult subject – the mortgage crisis of 2008 – for non-expert viewers.  McKay makes what could be an arcane and tedious topic move, and his use of characters and celebrities to directly address and instruct the audience is particularly effective. The film is also wildly entertaining, and for the most part, well paced. In adapting Michael Lewis’s book, McKay alternates between keeping a sense of humor and paying appropriate deference to the deadly serious nature of the crash, revealing the seeming lunacy of modern finance and inherent flaws in our system. As we cover the prescient characters who foresaw the collapse of the mortgage market, and created a new financial instrument to short it to their advantage, the film builds to a depressing climax that is educational and even moving.

But one has to remember, McKay tacked on tedious moral lessons about our financial system in, of all things, the moronic buddy comedy The Other Guys. So after watching Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg engage in their crazy hijinx, we received a sermon on the ponzi scheme that is Wall Street, though blessedly, only during the credits.  McKay did the same thing for campaign finance reform in the Ferrell/Zach Galifinakis comedy The Campaign, but his jeremiads actually crept into the film, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts he considers Anchorman 2 a modern Network.  Anybody who had to append morality epilogues to these light stinkers clearly was itching for more serious fare.

Unfortunately, when McKay got it, he made a riveting, rip-roaring, true life story, and then . . . he choked. A moral fable was not enough.  McKay wanted a moral scolding.  So, every representative of the establishment – bankers, investors, an SEC investigator, a bond rating company analyst, two Florida real estate brokers, the financial reporter – are to a person grotesque cartoons. As depicted by McKay, they might as well be spit-roasting the homeless. Worse, every single one of our hedge fund manager protagonists, all of whom made a shit ton of money off of the collapse, is presented as a tortured, morally conflicted hero. Profiteer Brad Pitt scolds two characters by reminding them that when unemployment rises 1%, 40,000 people die. They are chastened, though I doubt chastened enough to do much about it. Christian Bale, who made billions for his firm betting on the economy to fail, closes his shop with an email to investors that bemoans the cruelty of the market. And the third genius, Steve Carell, literally apes Christ on the cross as he weighs whether to sell. He is urged to do so by his staff as they call him from the steps of a church! And yes, he too cashes in, but only after much soul searching and many, many lectures. And after all that, McKay adds a coda where he warns us that it is all happening again, no one went to jail for it the last time, and so, we are not absolved.

It was all right there, the deed done with, if not a scalpel, a stiletto.  But McKay couldn’t trust his own narrative and so, he used a butcher knife. The ensuing bludgeoning is gonna’ pay off with an Oscar tomorrow night, followed by, I am sure, a sermon much like the one that kneecapped his own movie.

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