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segunda-feira, 11 de janeiro de 2016

The Big Short review: 'a very serious comedy indeed'

Adam McKay's riotously entertaining portrait of the 'weirdos' who profited from the 2008 financial collapse will enlighten and infuriate you
The Big Short
The Big Short is a film about a small group of outsiders and weirdos who bet on catastrophe and win. The catastrophe at hand is the financial crisis of 2008, and the outsiders and weirdos (their words, not mine) are a handful of traders, investors and hedge fund managers who scent the collapse and realise they can extract a tidy profit from financial armageddon.
Though it’s based on a strait-laced nonfiction book by the financial journalist Michael Lewis, the film itself is a comedy – and perhaps it couldn’t have been anything but. Making an almost 500 percent return on an investment in doomsday is a heck of a punchline.
Adam McKay’s film moves fast, and in order to cling on, you need at least a basic understanding of the financial chicanery that fuels it. This is where Ryan Gosling comes in – or rather Gosling’s character, a sleekly awful trader called Jared Vennett whose narration gives you just enough detail to make your soul curl up in shame at what’s going on.

Vennett isn’t the first character to spot the rot, though. That honour goes to Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a fund manager whose drab t-shirts, Playmobil hair, fondness for heavy metal and bone-deep social haplessness – he lolls in his office chair like one of those collapsible wooden animal toys – don’t exactly scream Gordon Gekko.
But during a 24-hour dive into the mortgage bonds on which much of the US economy is built, Burry discovers the bonds’ own foundations have been laid in a silty morass of bad debt. Everyone else on Wall Street thinks they’re infallible: it’s 2005, and the mortgage business is by all accounts in excellent health. So his instinct is to "short", or bet against, them, at any bank that’ll take his money. And of course they all do, with thinly confident smiles of their own.
These deals catch the eyes of Vennett and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an embittered hedge fund manager who’s already convinced the system is irredeemably corrupt. (Others, including a pair of young investors mentored by Brad Pitt’s retired banker, join the gold rush later.) Vennett and Baum realise Burry is on to something, and the film’s fun comes from the bitter smack of satisfaction as all of their worst suspicions are proven right.
Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in The Big Short
Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in The Big ShortCredit: Jaap Buitendijk
McKay is best known for directing the Anchorman films, and might not seem like an obvious candidate to make what is, for want of a better expression, a very serious comedy indeed. But anyone who saw his 2010 cop caper The Other Guys might recall that film’s unexpected end credits sequence, in which facts and figures about the recession lit up the screen in a fireworks display of principled fury.
The Big Short is made in the same spirit. It wants you to leave the cinema not just fired up, but clued in, and goes to knowingly preposterous lengths to ensure it. Sub-prime mortgages are explained in a cutaway to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, while the chef Anthony Bourdain compares "collateralised debt obligations" – risky mortgages bundled together into a supposedly safe investment package – to a batch of seafood stew made with three-day-old halibut. (“It’s not old fish, it’s a whole new thing!”)

Much of this is delivered right down the barrel of the camera, with a wink: the fourth wall in The Big Short is so porous, it’s basically a trellis. But despite the monologuing and Margot Robbie cameo, the film shares less DNA with The Wolf of Wall Street – where Leonardo DiCaprio could hardly wait to get past the technical stuff to the mayhem – than with JC Chandor’s gripping 2011 drama Margin Call, which showed an investment bank’s downfall from the inside, over a single vampiric night.


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A detour to Florida, where members of Baum’s team survey the growing mortgage crisis firsthand, feels like a side-step into Ramin Bahrani’s own rigorous mortgage-crisis drama 99 Homes, which arrives in the UK on DVD later this month.
There’s a newsy immediacy here too, though, as if McKay’s roving, twitchy camera is actually catching his characters red-handed. (The frequent, unflattering freeze-frames even look like long-lens paparazzi shots.) That tone narrows the film’s options, and scenes that flesh out Carell and Bale’s characters’ backgrounds ring false – plus, they add nothing Carell and Bale couldn’t themselves with a loaded look or line delivery.
For the most part, though, The Big Short sticks to what it does best: using laughter to enlighten, provoke and confound, and making you realise that in a situation this ethically and mathematically mangled, even the solutions are part of the problem. As comedies go, it’s downright sobering.

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