THE BIG SHORT (2015, Adam McKay)
Two hedge fund investors are investigating the rise in home loan defaults in Miami. One house they visit has been abandoned, and as they snoop around the pool, an alligator emerges from the water and snaps at them. As they scurry off, the camera lingers for a beat on the gator’s pitiless eyes as it continues to lurk in the water.
Adam McKay’s firecracker piece of comic journalism is full of images like this: potent metaphors for the American economy — essentially shark-infested waters where the worst evils hide just below the surface, right where you live. The Jenga towers of mass-produced crumbling blocks, the stale, un-sold fish diced up and repackaged as Anthony Bourdain’s stew… it’s all a series of alarm bells designed to shake unsuspecting rubes out of their complacent stupors.
McKay doesn’t stop there; he puts his characters in places where America’s stench wafts through the frame: at shooting galleries, holding deadly weapons and laughing. Anything could go wrong at any minute, and nobody cares. He puts them in Las Vegas, where nobody is there to gamble but everyone is gambling for a living (whether it’s leaving the SEC to hook up with a bank, investing in bonds, or shorting the market). Characters on cell phones discussing multi-million-dollar deals are stalking through busy city streets around cabs and people walking their dogs, or in pubs while elderly rugby fans sip on pints. So much is happening right under our noses, and so little is discussed or cared about. The news is interviewing Britney Spears about CROSSROADS.
It comes as no surprise that McKay has co-written and directed this behemoth. Listen to him in interviews dating back several years and you’ll find a wildly liberal, ferociously smart mind eager to expose corruption in banking and government. The villains in his 2010 cop satire THE OTHER GUYS were financial CEOs embezzling money from blue collar pension funds. So while his brain is right to make this material, perhaps his directorial talent still needs some refinement.
I like STEP BROTHERS and TALLADEGA NIGHTS fine, but I’m not a big fan of most of his work. Here, he has more toys to play with but he tries to use them all — it’s a hyper, enraged piece of filmmaking on amphetamines. To be fair, the material is angry and electric, but too many frantic camera moves and stuttering edits aren’t necessary. The script does the work, and so does the tremendous cast. Gosling is hilarious, Carell finely tuned, and in the least funny role (for some reason) Pitt is calm and forceful. Bale chews the most scenery but never feels false. This is a riotously entertaining work for its entire 130 minutes, it’s terrifying in its accuracy, and it will boil your blood when you think of just how rigged this game was where hardworking people just tried to get a seat at the table. It reminds me of Barney Frank’s great line when the DOJ cracked down on online poker shortly after the economic collapse of 2008: “They should be going after the people responsible for empty houses, not full houses.”