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-
The biggest problem with Getaway was also likely its main selling point to gear heads: it’s one long 90-minute car chase. That may sound like a good thing to audiences that love them some high-speed thrills, but back up a moment because this scenario could be like getting sick from eating too much ice cream. Car chases are one of the greatest things in movies, but they are still dependent upon execution and overall context within the narrative. If you got nothing but relentless car chases, wouldn’t that start to get boring? And so it is with Getaway whose endless stream of car chases becomes one long, plodding, monotonous blur of tedium.
Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is a former racecar driver looking for a fresh start in Bulgaria. One day he comes home, sees the Christmas decorations shattered, and is told that his wife has been kidnapped. The mysterious The Voice (Jon Voight in constant close-up) threatens to kill Brent’s wife unless he plays along. As per his orders, Brent hops into an impressive stolen car, outfitted with cameras so The Voice can keep tabs. Brent is ordered to drive around the city wildly. At one point, The Kid (Selena Gomez) pulls a gun on him, claiming that the car belongs to her. She’s forced inside the car and the two unlikely partners are made to do the bidding of The Voice.
A major problem for the movie being stuck in neutral is that it’s directed by Courtney Solomon, the man who previously helmed notorious stinkers like Dungeons and Dragons and An American Haunting. The action sequences are so badly edited together that often it’s a collage of fast-paced imagery without feeling the impact. It’s hard to tell what’s going on much of the time, so you just give up. There is one extended uncut scene of high-speed driving, but ordinarily Getaway is replete with confusing quick-cuts. More so, Solomon has difficulty properly staging the action sequences to draw out tension, falling back on speedy resolutions and rote action tropes. He doesn’t have a strong feel to visually orchestrate action. I cannot recall one action sequence that grabbed my attention, partly because they just run together into a flavorless meringue. The most annoying feature is Solomon placing a series of cameras all over the interior and exterior of Brent’s car. The movie frequently cuts around these security camera POVs, which are visually unappealing and remind you of a lame reality TV competition show. I think the camera aspect was included to give a grander visceral aspect of the car chases, to put you in the middle of the action. However, isn’t that the point of a really good car chase anyway? Shouldn’t proper execution make me feel thrills rather than dumb camera angles glommed onto the car? I would argue that Getaway was sold on the notion that the added Webcams make it “found footage-y.”
The scenes that aren’t car chases end up becoming respites, something to strangely look forward to, and judging by the atrocious dialogue, this is not a positive. Another problem is that the car chases are all relatively the same. It’s alleys, it’s streets, sometimes ice rinks, but we’re in Bulgaria and the particulars of the car chases will not budge. There is nothing to distinguish Car Chase #13 from Car Chase #86, and so it all just becomes bland even with all the vehicular mayhem. The stunt work is certainly impressive but I just wish it had been put to far better use.
Then there’s the matter of the characters and plot, or rather, the complete lack of them. The movie doesn’t waste any time, putting Brent in his muscle car and speeding around by minute two. I can almost respect that expediency, but it comes at a severe cost. All we know is that the guy drives good, which will be self-evident in seconds, and that his lovely wife was kidnapped by bad people who want him to drive. That’s it. Naturally, having one dude in a car doesn’t lead to great moments of characterization, and so we’re given the plucky teenage misfit partner played by the absurdly miscast Gomez (Monte Carlo, Spring Breakers). This character is annoying from the start and played by an actress who cannot convincingly portray an edgy character. So she comes off as artificial and irritating. It’s uncertain at this point whether Gomez can step outside her doe-eyed Disney Channel branding, but this awful movie certainly isn’t helping. Being stuck in the car with these two terribly written characters is like being trapped on a long vacation with the relatives you hate.
The plot is about as simple as you could think, and then most of it fails to make much sense. The car belongs to The Kid. The bad guys want to hit up her dad’s bank, stealing funds about to be liquidated, and then this all requires Brent to drive like a maniac throughout Bulgaria, where the country apparently hasn’t invented helicopters yet to track speeding cars. The plot really is the thinnest tissue to get the movie from one loud car chase to the next, with some asides where Gomez can spit out a few adult profanities (no F-bombs kids, this is still PG-13 after all). The conclusion makes little sense (spoilers). In the end, the villainous Voice congratulates Brent and his sidekick for winning, vanquishing his greedy scheme. Okay, but the Mr. Voice goes one step further claiming that this was his plan all along, to push Brent to his full potential that he always knew he was capable of. What does this mean? This man staged a highly elaborate heist, hired men with fierce firepower, and installed all this fancy technology just to make Brent a more self-actualized individual? This ending clearly points to a conclusive lack of an ending. Once the car chases were over, the screenwriters looked at each other and said, “Now what?” and that was when they typed “The end.”
I’m struggling to come up with any verifiable positives I can say about Getaway. I suppose if you’re an auto aficionado, you’ll get a kick out of watching Brent’s car, a Shelby Super Snake Mustang (I readily admit to looking this up because I don’t care about cars), in action. Other than that, unless you have a strong desire to watch Voight’s mouth in extreme close-ups for 90 minutes (you know who you are), there really isn’t anything of value to be found in the wreck that is Getaway.
If you’re a car chase junkie, I think taking a shot with Getaway could be just the trick to sober you up. It’s one long 90-minute car chase but made so ineptly, at every angle of filmmaking, that it gets so monotonous and boring far too early. When you don’t have characters to keep your interest, a plot that makes sense, action sequences that offer some variety, editing that makes the action coherent, and direction that hamstrings the viewer to lousy dashboard-esque cameras, then it’s easy to fall asleep to the sounds of near-constant vehicle crunching. Getaway is a terrible action movie, a terrible movie in general, and proof positive that action fans should be careful what they wish for.
Nate’s Grade: D
Harmony Korine is the kind of filmmaker who I typically avoid. I haven’t liked a single one of the movies the man has written or directed. This list includes Kids, Julien Donkey-Boy, Trash Humpers, and the detestable 1997 film, Gummo, possibly one of my most hated films. The man has become an expert on depicting juvenile delinquents and the excesses of youthful folly, so I wasn’t surprised that his latest writing/directing effort, Spring Breakers, followed suit. I was surprised at the names he was able to attract to the film. Former Disney Channel starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, as well as ABC Family’s Ashley Benson, join Rachel Korine as a foursome of gals who long for the pleasures of a spring break getaway. They scrimp and save for months, plus also rob a restaurant, and take their sojourn to the sunny beaches of Florida. The girls run afoul of the law and are bailed out by rapper and wannabe gangster Alien (James Franco). Living large, and with handy access to a plethora of weapons, the girls get involved in the crosshairs of a turf war, but they won’t let anything bring down their good times.
When you break it down to its trashy molecular core, Spring Breakers is like an exploitation film as directed by Terrence Malick. Allow me to explain, dear reader. Much like that hallowed art house filmmaker, the plot in Spring Breakers is really a wispy, abstract concept, and the film is prone to repetition and redundancy, a triptych for the senses. There’s plenty of overlapping dialogue that circles back and repeats itself, images that bleed into one another, and a plot that generally takes its cues from MC Skat Kat, namely moving two steps forward and then two steps back (is this reference too dated?). The rote dialogue, when not indifferently profane and nonsensical, is usually variations on, “Spring Break. Spring Break forever.” I’ve just given you about a fifth of the entire movie’s dialogue. It may have just been my theater’s sound system, but I found much of the dialogue hard to hear and decipher. Perhaps it was Korine admitting that the things his characters say weren’t worth straining to hear. As expected, this can get rather frustrating to sit through. It’s not so much a movie as an experience meant to wash over the audience. Hence the nonstop dubstep score, provided by Skrillex, and the crashing imagery of tawny exposed flesh, gyrating bodies, neon lighting, fellating gun barrels, and excessive inebriation, all meant to bring the spring break experience to the consumer, that is, if most people’s spring breaks involved lots of illegal activity. If Malick’s movies are meant to serve as religious experiences, then consider Spring Breakers to be the equivalent of ingesting GHB.
Let’s talk about that paucity of characterization. Besides Faith (Gomez), a name a bit too on-the-nose for this sort of enterprise, there is zero I can say about ANY of the other three girls. They are completely interchangeable. They have no defining characteristics beyond their simple geographic placement within the camera frame. That’s it. When Faith ditches the movie at the halfway mark, having the good sense to realize her supposed friends might not be the best influence, I wanted to go with her. I didn’t want to be left with these vacuous and annoying characters. It’s pretty clear the contempt that Korine has for his own female characters, constantly serving them up for ridicule. It makes the whole movie even less appealing. We’re not supposed to like our heroines but it gets uncomfortable when the director seems to be constantly shaming them, rubbing our faces in how awful they are as people. With an absence of characters you care about, and a plot that feels like it keeps circling back, there’s precious little to hold onto before you become anesthetized to Korine’s exploitative navel-gazing.
After Oz the Great and Powerful I didn’t think I would utter these words, but thank God for the presence of James Franco. The man is so fully committed to his gonzo portrayal of a white trash wannabe gangster that you are downright thankful when he takes over the movie halfway in. At least we don’t have to spend as much time with our empty-headed trio of ladies. Franco, perfecting an ominous drawl, is a cartoon of misplaced machismo, living the “gangsta” life he’s seen parroted in pop culture (he has Scarface running on a constant loop on his TVs). He provides a jolt of energy to the movie, a second wind, and thankfully pushes the girls into greater conflict than part-to-party binges. He brings a real sense of danger to the film, and the descent into a criminal path couldn’t have come soon enough for me. It’s such an enjoyably whacked-out performance that I wouldn’t be surprised if Franco may even be considered for some Best Supporting Actor nominations.
There’s something just so tiring and depressing about watching people trying to chase a hedonistic high rather than, you know, live their lives. In this warped sense of thinking, the all-encompassing term of “partying” is meant to be the divine state of being and anything else falls by the wayside of significance. I understand the movie is exposing a shallow and empty way of life but it can still be tiring to watch nonstop. You become numb to the onscreen antics. You become numb to the free-flowing spirits, profanity, and gratuitous nudity (there were literally six topless ladies onscreen before a word was spoken). Watching Spring Breakers, you have two options: give yourself over to the trance-like, self-destructive youthful fever-dream or sit solemnly, objectively observing how the outrageous become routine, and become dead inside.
As much as it pains me to admit, being a non-fan of Korine’s movies, there are a few moments in the movie that are actually surprisingly effective. The first is a hasty robbery of a small restaurant. We stay in the passenger seat of the slow-moving car as it spins around the building, and in the background we see the escalation of events, the girls smashing breakables and terrorizing the few patrons. It’s one of the few visual decisions that felt, and here’s a word you won’t find anywhere else in relation to this movie, artistically restrained. There’s also plenty of forced irony in the movie where a character’s positive words will be counterbalanced by a visual contrast. Faith phones her grandmother and talks about her great time, even promising next year that she wants to take dear old granny along with her. Meanwhile, as the words play out, which will happen again at several redundant points, we see the girls engaging in behavior that would most likely not be granny-approved. Even if forced, and often redundant, it’s still effective, as is Korine’s hypnotic visual sensibilities. If nothing else, Spring Breakers is a good-looking movie with many pleasing visuals.
I think I understand why my critical peers have lavished as much praise upon Korine’s bacchanalia. They see a satire of this empty, nihilistic, party-all-the-time, damn-the-consequences lifestyle, the idiocy of youthful hedonism. The problem is that there’s only a handful of moments in Spring Breakers where I felt that Korine actually achieved satire, one of them being a montage of robberies set to a Britney Spears song (beforehand we saw girls holding guns by the barrel and dancing in a circle). Those moments that struck me as satire were few and far between, because what I mostly left with was just another exploitation film. If this were meant to be satirical, the girls would not get away with it all in the end. Korine may intend to stand back in some ironic judgment of his own movie, providing himself an excuse for the lackluster plotting and characters. Here’s the point: even if it was done intentionally, it still makes for a lackluster plot and characters. Saying, “I meant that all along,” is not an excuse when the rest of the film fails to live up to your stated satirical intents.
Allow me a moment to talk about the somewhat disconcerting treatment of, for lack of a better description, the sluttiest of our gals, Cotty, played by Rachel Korine. When I saw the last name of Korine I thought, “Is that the director’s daughter?” Harmony Korine has been in the film industry for almost 20 years, so it was a possibility, and oh what a disturbing thought that was. Some cursory research proved that Rachel Korine was in fact Harmony’s wife; there’s a thirteen-year age difference. It’s still uncomfortable that Korine would slot his own wife to portray one of the titular spring breakers, the only one from our posse who goes nude onscreen too (sorry skeevy Disney Channel and ABC Family fans). So when he’s slut shaming these girls, mocking them with contempt, directing their gratuitous exploitation, he’s also including his own wife in this distasteful characterization, making sure the camera has multiple opportunities to take in her exposed flesh. It’s like he’s serving up his own wife to the gods of spring break (a.k.a. young male ticket-buyers), and it just seems icky.
When Spring Breakers came to a merciful close, the college-aged guy behind me remarked, “That’s the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.” I replied, “Then you haven’t seen a lot of movies, have you?” Korine’s abstract, aimless salute to self-indulgence is a depressing experience that celebrates the worst in human beings, but weird it is not. I’m just tired of Korine’s schtick. He presents trashy characters, prods us to ridicule them, and then gives them a lot of empty space to do dumb things for an hour and half, ultimately going nowhere and accomplishing little. It just so happens that Spring Breakers, his most commercial and accessible film, has attractive, nominally famous actresses partaking in the nastiness this time. I suppose there will be some appeal to a small swath of filmgoers to see former squeaky-clean Disney Channel gals cutting loose, behaving badly, and playing against (manufactured) type. For me, the very casting of these ladies was another sign of Korine’s artistically bare ambitions. If he wanted to hold up the entire escapist spring break pleasure-seeking lifestyle for satire, then he needed to push harder. What’s on the screen is rarely satire. Instead, it’s just another careless exploitation film, replete with moronic characters we don’t care about and a plot that would be charitably described as, well, a plot. Even Franco’s calculated weirdness cannot save this film. Spring Breakers is a trip best avoided.
Nate’s Grade: C-