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'The Big Short' Puts A Suspenseful, Comic Spin On The 2008 Financial Meltdown


Director Adam McKay is best known for his work with Will Ferrell on such comedies as "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights." With his new film, "The Big Short," he moves to a more sober arena, the Wall Street culture of subprime mortgages and credit default swaps that led, in 2008, to the collapse of the economy. The film stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt as people who predicted and profited from that collapse. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I don't know how director Adam McKay pulled it off, but with "The Big Short," he has made an exuberant comedy about the global financial apocalypse of 2008. It's goofy, suspenseful, fast-moving and also manages to explain the labyrinthine fraud that led to the crisis. Because the more you understand, the more your mind is blown by the scope of the greed and illogic.

Mckay is working from a terrific playbook, Michael Lewis's book of the same name on the collapse of the subprime mortgage market. The film's protagonists are traders, ex-traders, fund managers and bankers. These men recognize what others can't seem to process - that the real estate market is a bubble kept aloft by bad, terrible, awful, indefensible loans. In defiance of the conventional wisdom, they bet against, or short, the booming economy.

Mckay invents his own syntax for "The Big Short," part business thriller, part goofball comedy with interruptions for sidebars in which glamorous celebrities explain what's meant by mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and extrapolation bias. The segments make splendid sense. It's no coincidence that McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph have acknowledged the influence of the Peabody-winning "This American Life" episode, "The Giant Pool Of Money."

Our master of ceremonies is Deutsche Bank's Jared Vennett, played with consummate smoothness by Ryan Gosling. He addresses the camera, offers some historical context and introduces characters like the barely-socialized but ingenious San Jose money manager Mike Burry, played with hermetically-sealed weirdness by Christian Bale, and the volatile New York hedge fund manager, Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell. Finn Wittrock and John Magaro play the other protagonists, fledgling Colorado hedge funders who go to their old mentor, played with pointy-headed understatement by a bearded Brad Pitt, to help them get a seat at the table where the big boys throw around real money.

It's Carell's Baum, based on real-life money manager Steve Eisman, who gives the movie its peculiar, wavering moral center. He's divided against himself, in it to win it but aghast at the corruption and the prospect of the economic Armageddon that will make him a fortune. Carell is peerlessly antsy. He always looks as if he's itchy in his skin and smelling bad things. Even Baum's wife, played by Marisa Tomei, can't calm him down over the phone as he fights for a New York taxi.


STEVE CARELL: (As Mark Baum) Hey, excuse me. Hi, honey.

MARISA TOMEI: (As Cynthia Baum) The therapist called. You did it again.

CARELL: (As Mark Baum) There were no cabs. What was I supposed to do?

TOMEI: (As Cynthia Baum) You're running around like you have to right every wrong in the world.

CARELL: (As Mark Baum) OK. Fine. You know what? I'm a mean guy and I'm pissed off. You have no idea the kind of crap people are pulling, and everyone's walking around like they're in a damn Enya video. They're all getting screwed, you know? You know what they care about? They care about the ball game, or they care about what actress just went into rehab.

TOMEI: (As Cynthia Baum) I think you should try medication.

CARELL: (As Mark Baum) No, no. We agreed - if it interfered with work.

TOMEI: (As Cynthia Baum) You hate Wall Street. Maybe it's time to quit.

CARELL: (As Mark Baum) I love my job.

TOMEI: (As Cynthia Baum) You hate your job.

CARELL: (As Mark Baum) I love my job.

TOMEI: (As Cynthia Baum) You're miserable.

CARELL: (As Mark Baum) I love my job. I love my job, honey.

TOMEI: (As Cynthia Baum) Mark.

CARELL: (As Mark Baum) Cynthia, I'm OK. I really am - hey, hey, hey. No, no. My cab. That's my cab. That's my cab.

EDELSTEIN: Carell's Mark Baum leads his colleagues on a fact-finding trip to central Florida that's "The Big Short's" most startling sequence, a tour of neighborhoods pocked by for sale signs and idle bulldozers. What shocks Baum even more is the joshing banter of the young men who package loans they know will never be paid back. They're not confessing, says one of Baum's assistants, they're bragging.

There's a brilliant paradox at the core of "The Big Short." We root for these men to succeed, for Christian Bale's Burry to keep his dismayed overseers from cutting the legs out from under him, for Carell's Baum to say I told you so. When they do succeed, we go, yes. We like identifying with winners. Only later does the film remind us that their win was everyone else's loss. A lot of ordinary people would suffer.

"The Big Short" ends with pointed editorializing, even preaching, about the lack of consequences for the fraudsters - not our protagonists who took advantage of the system, but the people who created it. None of this is new. Many books and documentaries, including Charles Ferguson's "Inside Job," which won an Oscar, cover the same material. But maybe a nutty, entertaining Hollywood comedy with big stars will cross over to a larger audience. "The Big Short" is, in any case, one of the best films of the year.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Monday on Fresh Air...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'm going to take it from them.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Seize it. All of you that have never been listened to before and have seen your family killed, you now have something that stands for you.

GROSS: The new film "Beasts Of No Nation" is about young boys forced into being soldiers serving a warlord in an unnamed West African country. My guest will be the film's director, Cary Fukunaga, who also directed the first season of "True Detective," the 2011 film adaptation of "Jane Eyre" and the film "Sin Nombre." I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.

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