Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Big Short

I rarely get out to the movie theater, but managed it this week. This particular theater was newly renovated to feature big clean aisles and large comfy recliners. Having grown up in the era when beautiful old theaters were getting chopped up into cold, sticky-floored multiplexes with a distinctly garage-like vibe, I have to say I like the new decor.

I did not like the previews. And there were tons of them. Preview after preview after preview. I used to love movie trailers, but every single preview we saw was exceedingly loud and exceedingly violent, with someone getting brutally attacked in every one. Sitting there began to feel like being assaulted. "This is why I don't go to the movies anymore," I thought. I don't know why we had such violent previews, since the movie we had come to see (The Big Short) was not violent. Maybe most movies are just like that now.

Anyway, once the beatings and shootings (and a bear attack) were over, we got to watch mayhem of a different sort: bloodless, cerebral, global. The Big Short follows the adventures of the money men who foresaw, and cashed in on, the 2008 housing-market debacle.

As a writer, I was fascinated by the line the filmmakers had to walk. Normally, in a movie like this where the main characters are taking huge risks in the face of a lot of naysaying, you root for the main characters. But in this case, rooting for the main characters meant rooting for the collapse of the housing market and the economy. It meant hoping for a disaster that caused much suffering in real life, suffering that many in the audience have endured. At least the movie acknowledges this: even the characters who profited were squeamish about it. What keeps us from hating them is that the people they were betting against were so much worse: creating and propping up a set of appalling deceptions, careless and heedless of where it was all leading, and smug in their belief that the glory days could last forever.

Another challenge the filmmakers had was creating suspense in a situation where we all know how it turned out; we all know what happened. In this case, the suspense was in not being entirely sure which of the characters would come out all right, or when, or how. It was in trying to understand how this fiasco could happen in the first place. And that leads to another difficulty: explaining complicated financial deals to a general audience.

Here, the movie uses an interesting device that could have backfired (it could've turned out condescending, or boring), but really seemed to work: having celebrities explain complicated financial concepts with simple, concrete analogies. Anthony Bourdain, for example, compared the repackaging of bad debts to a chef tossing leftover halibut into a fish stew: take your less-than-attractive product and put it in a pretty new vehicle. These explanations were also used very sparingly, just a few times, and exactly at the right places. So, IMHO, it mostly worked (although having Margot Robbie in a bubble bath while she explained her bit was a little too gratuitously cheesecakey for my tastes).

I have always been partial to anatomy-of-a-meltdown movies (quite literally, in the case of The China Syndrome), so maybe this was just my kind of movie. But with its dark humor and extreme relevance--economic bubbles seeming destined to recur--it may be many people's kind of movie. I hope so. Aside from the subject of the movie itself, I also liked watching it as a writer, and seeing how the filmmakers turned this unlikely subject and unlikely group of characters into something eminently watchable.

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