Adam McKay is not exactly the kind of name you associate with a prestige picture that’s building serious Oscar heat. McKay is best known as the director and co-writer of Will Ferrell’s best movies, from Anchorman and its sequel to Talladega Nights and the underrated 2010 buddy cop movie, The Other Guys. If you stuck through the closing credits for Guys, you were treated to an animated education lesson on the size of Wall Street’s greed and accountability in regards to the 2008 financial crisis. It was impassioned, angry, and an interesting note to end an otherwise goofy comedy. The Big Short is based upon Michael Lewis’ (Moneyball) best-selling book and it’s a disaster movie where the biggest disaster is the world economy. The movie McKay co-adapted and directed is bristling with intelligence, indignation, and a clear purpose. He wants to make you very angry, and by the end if you’re not, you haven’t been paying enough attention.
In the wake of the financial collapse in 2008, the fallout was so tremendous that many people felt nobody could have seen this coming. There were a few and they made out like bandits while trying to warn others about the impending doom. In the early 2000s, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a hedgefund manager who sees warning signs that the housing market is a bubble ready to burst. He sees the toxicity of the majority sub-prime mortgages wrapped together and sold as a seemingly safe security, a CDO (collateralized debt obligation). His bosses think he’s mad and they’re furious when they discover Burry has gone from bank to bank making big bets against the housing market. The banks are eager to take what they believe to be easy money from a sucker. How could the housing market burst? Other Wall Street investors take notice of Burry, notably Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who pitches the plan to “short” the housing market. Nobody takes him seriously except Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his small team who works for Goldman Sachs. Baum is curious how something so large could go unnoticed, so he and his team fly to Florida and Vegas to investigate the realities of the market and what they find does not match the rosy cheerleading from Wall Street. A pair of wannabe traders (Finn Witrock, John Magaro) stumbles across Burry’s analysis and try to make their own bets, except they need a bigger name to make the trades. They reach out to an ex-Wall Street trader (Brad Pitt) who agrees to shepherd them on this quixotic quest. Are these men righteous defenders of fraud or just people trying to get their own cut of the pie?
The brilliance of The Big Short lies in its accessibility and the virulent passion that McKay has for the subject matter. The movie is structured like a heist and an underdog story, suckering in the audience to root for the upstarts trying to fleece the big banks and profit off their greed and stupidity. For the first 90 minutes or so, the film comes across like a caper and we follow our group of misfits as they fight against the conventional wisdom that the housing market could never topple. These guys see the signs and the risks that others could not or would not see, especially since the flow of money was rich and the good times could be shared, which lead to collusion from the very same agencies designed to regulate and enforce the financial laws. For those 90 minutes the movie flies by on its sense of whimsy and are-we-getting-away-with-this good fortune, putting our band of misfits in position to win big on the losses of the ignorant and fraudulent. And then, in one swift move, it all comes down and you’re reminded, rather indignantly by Pitt’s character, that what they are benefiting from is the meltdown of the U.S. housing market and by extension the American economy. What once felt like a celebratory caper now starts to feel queasy, and it’s in the last act that The Big Short reminds you just how awful the events of the 2008 financial crisis were and how these guys did nothing more than benefit from mass misery. These are not heroes, though Mark Baum is given plenty of moral grandstanding moments that present him as the closest thing we have in the picture. These were a bunch of guys who got rich betting on a lot of other people’s bad bets, bets that almost destroyed the world’s economic systems. The concluding half hour feels like a sudden stop after a sugar rush, where you’re left to question your decision-making but also come to terms with the reality of what seemed like a fun time. McKay lures his audience in with the guise of a heist/underdog story, appealing and accessible avenues of cinema, and then serves the cold hard medicine in the concluding moments.
McKay is admirably trying to educate and advocate while he entertains, but he truly wants the audience to understand why they should be sharpening their pitchforks. At several points, characters will break the fourth wall and talk directly into the camera, admitting that certain events didn’t happen exactly as we saw, or occasionally they’ll remind us that what we watched was exactly how it happened. It’s a measure that isn’t overplayed and helps juice the spirits of the movie, becoming something of a confidant in the schemes with the onscreen participants. When things gets a little hard to understand with the mountain of Wall Street lingo, McKay will cut to celebrity cameos to help explain the more arcane instruments of the financial system. Margot Robbie luxuriates in a bubble bath and explains sub-prime mortgages, Anthony Bourdain explains CDOs, and Selena Gomez, in a rather cogent analogy, explains synthetic CDOs as an endless chain of side bets being made off one hand of blackjack. The movie goes pretty fast and a viewer might experience information overload but McKay knows when to slow things down and provide a well-timed assist so that his learned audience will see the true extent of the corruption and greed rampant in how Wall Street handled its business.
Of the three storylines, I found Mark Baum and his team easily the most interesting and I think McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Interpreter) agreed, which is why he’s the biggest part of the movie. Burry gets things started but he recedes into the background after the first act, and that’s where Baum and his financial team step into the spotlight to further explore how unstable the housing market just might be. I think this is Carell’s best dramatic performance to date (I wasn’t wowed by Foxcatcher). He’s playing perhaps one of the angriest people seen on screen but that’s because he has a moral center and the bad business practices, let alone the sociopathic greed of his “peers,” constantly enrage him. He’s something like a flabbergasted crusading journalist who keeps shaking his head in stupefying revulsion at just how deep this whole thing goes. Having Baum as our entry into the moral morass of Wall Street allows the audience to feel a sense of ethical superiority, and then like Pitt’s character, it can all go away with one perfectly articulated retort. There’s a moment where Baum is lambasting a mortgage ratings officer (Melissa Leo, her only scene too) after she admits that if they don’t rate bad mortgages as good, the banks will just go to their competitor, and then she accuses Baum of being a hypocrite. His reason for the office visit is not his outrage at the fraud but the fact that this fraud is holding up his winnings. He’s not the crusader he may wish to be. Bale (American Hustle) and Gosling (Only God Forgives) are perfectly cast and provide strong supporting work in small doses spread throughout. Pitt is in 12 Years a Slave producer mode where he knows he needs to appear in the movie to better sell it to audiences, and so he’s here and rather unremarkable. There is a bevy of familiar faces (Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Max Greenfield, Karen Gillan) appearing in small moments as if everybody in Hollywood wanted to get in on McKay’s party.
There is one annoying misstep in the movie and it occurs about halfway and it’s made to stretch out the stakes in a haphazard manner. The Big Short is a disaster movie where the audience knows exactly when the disaster is coming, and yet there’s a section in the middle where the characters are all left in doubt whether their big bets will pay off because of the ratings fraud. Burry is threatened with losing his job. It’s silly because we know the economy is going to crash in 2008, but the movie throws out a weak obstacle that, hey, maybe it won’t crash. It reminds me of the Hinderberg movie from the 1970s. There were several moments where it looked like that zeppelin full of hydrogen was going to go up in flames… except students of history know that moment is fated in New Jersey, so all the close calls were foolish fake-outs for a major event that was well anticipated. We all know the economy is going down so there’s no need for the manufactured doubts.
McKay and company want to wake up a fairly apathetic general public about the crimes and negligence of the Wall Street robber barons that risked the world’s economy and then managed to skip out on the tab. The tones can juggle wildly, and I’d credit McKay’s background in comedy for his ability to maintain a reliable and firm comic footing for the film without losing the significance of his message. It’s hard to nail down a genre for the movie; it’s a dark comedy, a drama, a true crime picture, and a wake-up call. You have moments that feel like a heist flick and moments that feel like a sickening journalistic expose. It’s got highs, lows, laughs, groans, and plenty of human emotions, though the most prominent would be disgust and disbelief. The Big Short is advocacy populism as pop-entertainment, and it succeeds ably. It’s an economics lesson for the public. At the end of the movie, the closing text informs us about “bespoke tranches,” which are investment opportunities that banks are flocking to ($5 billion in 2013 to $20 billion in 2014). It’s just another name for CDOs. Unless an informed public demands action from the system, it seems that Wall Street is doomed to repeat its same high-risk mistakes and that same vulnerable public is doomed to clean up the mess.
Nate’s Grade: A-
For the longest time it looked like Ant-Man might be the first dud of the runaway successful Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), a film franchise that was practically printing money at its leisure. It’s a strange setup and the man responsible for the movie even existing, writer/director Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), walked away six weeks before cameras were going to roll. Wright was a big fan of the character and has been working on and off on a screenplay with Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) for the past eight years. Before there was an MCU, there was Wright pushing for Ant-Man. I’m pretty sure Marvel execs weren’t thinking the relatively unknown character was worth sinking money into, but Wright kept pushing. I was far more excited for an Edgar Wright superhero movie than I ever was for Ant-Man, and then it all went away. Neither side has spilled too many details but it appears the divorce was a result of “creative differences,” which is odd since Marvel approved Wright’s script through eight years of development. Several directors were auditioned and Peyton Reed won the spot. The fact that Marvel has gained a rep for being a formula-driven creative committee and they literally hired a director with a film credit called Yes Man is an irony I don’t know that fully sank in. If Marvel was going to miss, this was the film. A funny thing happened in the ensuring year. Ant-Man is a visually engaging, energetic, and funny superhero caper that stays fun from start to finish and is a more entertaining movie than Avengers: Age of Ultron. Didn’t see that coming.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a master cat burglar just finishing the end of his prison term. Lang was punished for a “cool crime,” stealing millions a large corporation had illegally bilked form customers and returning it to the very victims, but it makes it hard to secure gainful employment. Scott falls back with his old crew, lead by his pal Luis (Michael Pena), and break’s into Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) safe. Expecting cash and jewels, Scott is disappointed to only find a weird looking suit, which he takes anyway. Hank observes Scott and communicates with him about the power of the suit. The wearer can shrink down to the size of n ant with the push of a button in the glove. Hank needs a protégée to wear the suit now that he’s too old. His estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is working for Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a scientist close to breaking through on replicating the amazing shrinking formula of Pym’s. As soon as Cross cracks the code, he’s going to sell the technology to the highest bidder (hail HYDRA). Hank must convince Scott to become the Ant-Man and sneak inside Cross’ secured workshop and steal his technology before it gets in the wrong-er hands.
Arguably weirder than last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which had a talking tree and space raccoon amongst its main characters, Ant-Man is the hardest property to sell by Marvel yet, and it smartly aims its sights lower and succeeds with the modest goal of just being a fun and enjoyable time at the movies. It helps that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and has characters pointing out the absurdity of its premise and developments, but not past the point where it would be detrimental. Let’s face it, a guy who can shrink down to ant-size isn’t that weird when you consider the applications, especially in espionage. The filmmakers do an admirable job of selling a superpower that pales in comparison to most other heroes on the market. However, the weirder power is that Scott has the ability to communicate and control ants via brainwaves. That seems like the even bigger superpower but it also begs the question, why simply ants? Of all the animals or living creatures who could be harnessed with this technology, we go with the tiny ones. There may be an explanation in the history of Ant-Man comics I’m missing but that doesn’t matter when we’re talking about the execution of the movie. The guy is able to control different species of ants with his mind. He is no Ant-Man but the Ant-King. Anyway, I think this power could be much more effective applied elsewhere. The ants are Scott’s friends and he has to train himself training them, getting them to coordinate and assist him properly, or else… there’s not much else at stake because they’re expendable. Perhaps their queen could have eaten Scott if he were unsuccessful.
On its surface, this movie should not work and is too goofy and insubstantial to engage, and yet that’s precisely what appealed to me. Not every superhero film needs to be averting a cataclysm that will destroy the planet. If the stakes feel big to our characters, and if the audience cares, then the stakes feel plenty big for us too. Scott simply foiling the corporate bad guy to be in a better position to see his daughter, that’s workable. Then the storyline is told through a heist, one of cinema’s most enjoyable plot mechanics. Heists are programmed for audience pleasure because it requires teamwork, which utilizes our cast in different and fun ways, it brings plenty of conflict and complications, and it lays out its steps one-by-one and provides a series of payoffs with the completion. It’s a tribute to Reed and the filmmakers that the heist portion of the film isn’t even the most fun part of the story. The majority of the middle is Scott coming to terms with the suit, his powers, his relationships in his life, and the mission. There’s probably one too many training montages (yeah, you get those sugar cubes you ants!) but the pacing is so breezy and the sense of fun so palpable, I didn’t mind. The use of humor never diminishes and Rudd is such a charismatic anchor for the movie, and yet he’s actually somewhat underplayed. He has it within him to be much funnier, but I guess he had to dial it down to effectively be seen as an action hero, hence the presence of newfound abs.
I didn’t have a lot of hope for the film once Wright left but I have to credit Reed for what he has achieved. It’s impossible for me to divorce myself from Wright’s involvement, and what kind of kinetic fireworks he would have birthed, but Reed manages to make Ant-Man come alive visually. Reed’s prior history shows an affinity for comedy but the films have never needed to be visually stylish, though I’d argue my super not-guilty pleasure Bring it On had an above average sense of visual spunk. Still, Ant-Man is a consistently visually immersive film that manages to find new perspectives. Scott’s first foray as a shrunken Ant-Man is an entertaining adventure through the dangers of a house party. The action sequences in miniature are treated just as we would expect a large-scale superhero epic to be treated, and then Reed pulls back at times for prime comic effect, like a battle atop a train that’s really just a child’s toy set. The visuals grandeur is patterned after the typical Hollywood action epic but the movie pulls back repeatedly to remind us how silly everything can be. The small world perspective opens up the movie in its storytelling and definitely in its action choreography. Because the Ant-Man has super strength when small, it behooves him to shift between small and human sizes when fighting. We’ll watch Scott race across the barrel of a gun in one second and then full-sized and hurling a security guard through a plate glass window the next. It provides a new sense of dynamism to basic fisticuffs. Reed takes advantage of the visual possibilities of his pint-sized super hero, like a clever battle that takes place entirely inside the contents of a briefcase. I chose not to watch this film in 3D, as my preferred option, but this is one I would almost consider going 3D. The shrunken worlds use a lot of macro photography to maximize the effect of depth.
The cast also seems to be perfectly attuned to the comic rhythms of the story and several supporting players make the most of their moments to shine. Pena (Fury) is hilarious as the easily excitable friend given to lengthy diversions when retelling his tales of intrigue. The two instances where Pena breathlessly recaps what so-and-so said to so-and-so are two of the most playful and comically fulfilling sequences in the movie. I also enjoyed the fact that he’s always making waffles for his friends but this is never overtly commented upon. While Pena provides another dose of humor, the heart of the movie is really the father-daughter relationship, and it’s nice that Lilly (The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies)’s character is given such prominence. She resents Scott because she feels like by every right she should be the Ant-Man; the movie presents the two like bickering rivals fighting for the approval of a father figure. Hope’s credible grievances with her father are treated with weight and her reconciliation is given as much screen time as Scott’s training, pairing the two more as equals. Douglas (Last Vegas) is a warm and welcoming presence as a mentor working through his regrets late in his life. The de-aging CGI effects are amazing early on, showing a 1989 version of Douglas that looks pristine. He looks like he just stepped off the set of Ruthless People. The only weak point is Stoll (TV’s The Strain) but that’s because his underwritten villain is just too generic to blend in amidst all the colorful characters and comic mayhem.
It’s impossible to watch Ant-Man and not try to imagine what it would have been like had Wright remained as its director. Wright’s presence is still felt in stretches and he and Cornish are still the top-billed screenwriters, with the addition of Adam McKay (Anchorman) and Rudd himself performing a rewrite. I’d love to one day read what Wright’s full script was like and what Marvel eventually decided they could not abide. Whatever the case may be, the Ant-Man that made it to the big screen across the world is a surprisingly entertaining and spry piece of work. Reed provides a nice dash of visual flavor without losing its sense of the comedy or drama, Rudd is effortlessly charming, and the structure provides plenty of payoffs. Above all else the movie maintains a sense of fun and a lightness in an arena too often overwrought with doom and gloom. I don’t imagine there will be any Ant-Man sequels soon since the character is rather limited, but expect to see Rudd popping up in other MCU titles (he’s already been spotted filming Captain America 3). Ant-Man is a fun diversion but even Marvel knows not to push its luck too far.
Nate’s Grade: B
A lot has changed in the nine years since the raucous, instantly quotable, and deeply silly hit comedy, Anchorman. Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, and Paul Rudd have all become big stars (sorry Dave Koechner), producer Judd Apatow has become a comedy empire unto himself, and director Adam McKay has gone on to helm several other hit Ferrell collaborations. As much as I loved Anchorman, and I unabashedly do, I was nervous about a sequel capturing the same magic. While Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues cannot be as good as its predecessor; my worries were mainly unfounded because this is still the funniest movie of the year. Simply put, if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll find enough to enjoy, possibly even love, with this latest chapter. The laughs-to-minute ratio is pretty high, as long as you don’t mind some scenic detours. The plot is much looser this time with several competing storylines that come in and out of focus. There are segments that could have been cut completely, like Ron’s bout with blindness, but I laughed enough that I never minded. But that ending 15 minutes is where the filmmakers drop any pretension of reality and double down on absurdity. It’s no surprise that those last crazy 15 minutes were my favorite. The cast is universally strong together, working off one another’s comedic styles so effortlessly, but the plot is very much a kitchen sink approach. I’m happy that Ferrell and McKay, co-writers again (though it’s hard to credit a collaborative improv), didn’t feel the need to recycle many jokes from the first film, reliving their old hits for fans hungry for instant nostalgia. Anchorman 2 is the same brilliantly broad comedy and absurdist dada experiment every loyal fan was hoping for. Give the gift of Ron Burgandy this holiday season and stay classy, America.
Nate’s Grade: B+
When it comes to clowning around, no one does stupid more smartly than Will Ferrell, a man perpetually in a state of arrested development. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby succeeds both as a satire on uplifting, redemptive sports movies and on the culture of NASCAR. The product placement is obscene in this movie, but then again, the same can be said with NASCAR racing. PowerAde had a contractual obligation to be cited at every family meal prayer, which itself turns into a competitive sport. Title buffoon Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) is so arrogant that he gets an ad for Fig Newtons on his windshield (“This ad is dangerous… but I do love Fig Newtons.”). Even the title is a perfect send-up. The redneck riffs are never very mean-spirited, but I like that the Southern bar keeps disco on the jukebox to “profile.” The sports clichés are picked apart, like the absentee father (Gary Cole) reappearing to learn the error of his ways. There’s a heavy reliance on slapstick and pretty much everyone in the movie is either a cad, a buffoon, or a jackass, so there are limits to that comedy.
True to 2004’s Anchorman, this movie hits its high points with the spontaneous moments of tangential weirdness, from sports announcers explaining how to put out invisible fire to Ricky Bobby learning to drive with a live cougar as a co-pilot. Talladega Nights doesn’t quite hit the absurdist highs of the infinitely quote-able Anchorman, and the movie spins its wheels all too often, but it’s got a greater number of solid belly laughs than most any movie out there today. Sacha Baron Cohen plays Jean Gerard, the gay, French Formula-One driver that upsets the stock car world. Cohen has great fun in an English language mangled performance Peter Sellers would have loved. When Ferrell and Cohen are face to face, you feel like anything can happen between these two quick-witted comedy titans. Ferrell has assembled another game cast of gifted improvisational artists and their blend of loony comedy feels like jazz. The downside with such a huge cast of very funny people is that not everyone gets the face-time they deserve (Oscar nominee Amy Adams comes to mind).
Talladega Nights is a big broad comedy with a great cast and some inspired chuckles. What other movie this summer could climax so perfectly with a man-on-man smooch and the observation, “You taste like… America”? Only one, baby, and it’s Ricky Bobby.
Nate’s Grade: B