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‘The Big Short’s genius is also one of its key obstacles

‘The Big Short’

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry in the movie “The Big Short.”

( Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures)

It occurs to you about 20 minutes into “The Big Short.” Actually, it probably occurred to most people 10 minutes in. But the Jets were losing and I’m a daydreamer. It’s a simple question, really: Should I root for these guys?

The characters in Adam McKay’s new film are, as those who read Michael Lewis’ source book know well, the adventuresome contrarians who foresaw the 2008 financial crash. 

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Over several years leading up to the crash, people such as Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), most of whom did not know one another, defy both conventional wisdom and their bosses with their unorthodox investments. With verve and style, McKay (“Talladega Nights” and its ilk) shows these  characters making huge bets against the rising housing market, essentially gambling that the long-stable realm will all come crashing down and make their investments very lucrative.

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The movie, which closed AFI Fest on Thursday, offers plenty of fodder for conversation. When it opens in December, it will certainly occasion a conversation about how we understand the 2008 economic crisis -- and whether, as a surprisingly ominous ending suggests, we could be heading right back to the precipice.

But cinematically speaking, the’re another interesting aspect involving just what kind of characters Baum and friends are. With the shorting-a-crisis premise, the movie is building to what we know will become one of the worst economic disasters in this country’s history. But that also of course leads to a big paradox; to arrive at the happy ending for the main characters is also to arrive at a cataclysm for everyone else.

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“The Big Short” is set up with the movie screen-size challenges of a sports film and the gleeful abandon of a buddy comedy. Yet to root for its protagonists is to root for a disaster -- even more, it’s to root for people who exploit a disaster.

There have been plenty of comparisons to other films about Masters of the Universe, but it’s this last point that makes me think “The Big Short” is offering a different proposition from that of most movies about making money. Whatever the moral shadings of a “Wall Street” or a “Wolf of Wall Street,” whatever narcissism and vacuousness afflict the characters, their wealth is not really built on the suffering of millions of people.  

Some of this tension is of course built into “The Big Short,” via a climactic conflict for one character and, earlier, a speech from Rickert in which he asks that colleagues curb their enthusiasm about their activities. But for much of the film, the issue just kind of hovers in the background, leaving audiences to puzzle out exactly how to feel about it. And that makes watching the film a wonderfully challenging and complex experience.

At the after-party at AFI Fest, Carell told me how he sees the characters’ actions: “I think you are supposed to be rooting for them and at the same time see the conflict inside of them.” He also said, tellingly, when asked where he came down on Baum, “I think he saw himself as a hero,” leaving viewers to possibly take a different view.

When I volleyed the question to McKay a few minutes later, he offered his own elaboration. “That’s my favorite thing about this movie,” he said. I’m a big believer in not using cartoon heroes. Julian Assange is kind of a creep, but he did some good things. I’m sure if you went back and met Hercules you may find he’s kind of a [jerk].”

McKay might be selling himself, well, short. Flawed heroes are one thing. A movie that actively pulls against itself like this -- that deliberately clouds the question of heroism, that asks us to contemplate the very reasons we root for characters -- is another. There are heroes, there are antiheroes, and there are even heroes who become antiheroes. But it’s far rarer to see people whose ambiguity is so baked in from the start.

One hardly needs an advanced understanding of derivatives to understand the challenge this presents. As delicious as it is to contemplate, this paradox could well make some viewers uncomfortable and might make the movie a tricky sell to mainstream viewers. As an audience, we’re well past the point of needing sympathy and likability from our main characters. But even in the post-"Dark Knight” era, there are still some clear battle lines when it comes to flawed characters. And this movie tangles them up in all kinds of new ways.

Few films out there are able to conjure up such conflicting emotions simultaneously. “The Big Short” has us unsure not only of the characters but of ourselves. It evokes an enthusiastic cheer and then makes us feel uncomfortable for that enthusiasm. Like so much having to do with the financial crisis, it leaves us feeling passionate and angry, but also raw and conflicted.

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Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

ALSO:

Why Michael Lewis says Adam McKay gets the Wall Street meltdown right in ‘The Big Short’

What ‘Spotlight’ respects about the church-scandal-breaking journalists and the actors who play them  

Will ‘Concussion’ bring Will Smith his third Oscar nomination?


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