The Big Short

The-Big-Short-Poster-2015

If you saw the Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg 2010 comedy The Other Guys, you may have noticed something a little bit “off” about the end credits. While the feature was a typical over-the-top comedy (Ferrell and Wahlberg play “odd couple” partners who inadvertently solve a major case despite plenty of hijinks along the way), the end credits took a surprisingly serious turn with facts and figures from the 2008 financial crisis. After the fun and lightheartedness of the film itself, the end credits splashed a dose of cold water on the whole thing. It was clear that the people behind the film were justifiably outraged about the crisis and the fact that no one in the financial industry suffered any consequences for their creation of the whole mess. It felt like a message to the audience – if you thought this comedy was outrageous and unbelievable, just look at how nuts the real world is. So for those who saw The Other Guys, it probably wasn’t that surprising that Adam McKay, the director of that movie and other acclaimed comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, was tackling a dramatization of Michael Lewis’ 2010 book The Big Short.

Essentially, the film is about a select group of financial outsiders who realize that the mortgage-backed securities market is destined to crash (like a Jenga game, which the film uses as a nice visual metaphor) and decide to place big bets to make a fortune off of the disaster. The outsiders are played by Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, among others. And yes, these are the heroes of the film.

In arguably the film’s most important scene, Brad chastises our “heroes” after they confirm their suspicions that the whole real estate market is being run by idiots. They giddily jump up and down on the floor, until they are reminded (by Brad, the only unambiguously good man in the movie, of course) that what they are celebrating is the collapse of the American economy. That sobers their celebration pretty quickly.

That’s the scene that stuck out for me from The Big Short. Are these characters heroes? It’s nice that they’re outraged and indignant about the reckless greed of Wall Street, but they profit off that very arrogance and recklessness. At the end of the film, only two groups emerge unscathed: the Wall Street firms that are bailed out after brokering the whole mess in the first place, and our heroes, who vastly multiply their bank accounts.

The Big Short tackles the same themes as The Wolf of Wall Street, but whereas Scorsese’s film felt like a chocolate sundae this one is a steaming helping of broccoli. Its frustration with the financial system is its greatest strength, but the heavy-handedness with which it tells the tale leaves the film feeling a bit like an after-school special.

Grade: B-

Side note: I have to commend The Big Short for characters breaking the fourth wall to address that some events that play out onscreen didn’t actually happen, but make for better drama. A refreshing acknowledgement to take the film, although based on facts, with a grain of salt.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Well, it's half right.

When the credits rolled on Crazy, Stupid, Love I noticed that it credited two directors – Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. That’s when I understood the wildly different tonal shifts, multiple (unnecessary) subplots, and why Crazy, Stupid, Love feels like three different movies in one.

Cal (Steve Carell) and wife Emily (Julianne Moore) are getting a divorce. She’s slept with a colleague at work (Kevin Bacon in a meatless role) and she wants out. Cal is heartbroken. He’s moves out of the house and into a small apartment, spending his nights at a nameless club where he drinks vodka-cranberries and grumbles about his wife’s affair for the entire bar to hear. He’s in a sad state of affairs – and so is the movie at this point.

Enter Jacob (Ryan Gosling) the sympathetic womanizer (do these people exist in the real world?) who takes Cal under his wing to give him a make-over and regain the confidence that he’s lost. Gosling is without a doubt the strongest part of the film as Jacob, exuding charisma and charm effortlessly while also showing tenderness and vulnerability in quieter scenes. He’s a fully-fleshed out character in a film of half-cooked ones.

That’s the biggest problem of Crazy, Stupid, Love – it loves all of its characters so much that it doesn’t realize that the film would be better if it cut a few…or four. There’s the seventeen year-old babysitter of the family who is given way too much screen time harboring a secret crush on Cal, which leads to a queasy and uncomfortable subplot (having seen David Schwimmer’s sexual predator film Trust a few days before certainly didn’t help matters). There’s David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon), the man Emily has an affair with, who’s given a handful of scenes to smile and laugh at her before the obligatory confrontation scene with Cal. Then there’s Cal and Emily’s son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who spends the film  waxing philosophically about soul mates and true love and urges his Dad to “fight” for his mother if she really means something to him. I don’t think he has a scene without mentioning “love” or some variation thereof – he’s a little too sweet.

There’s a great movie itching to claw its way out of this one. Crazy, Stupid, Love has its moments of brilliance (such as rumbling jungle music accompanying Ryan Gosling – to show what a stud he is) and there’s a fantastic climatic scene that eschews our expectations of the “Grand Romantic Moment”  and gathers all the characters together for conflict and a surprising revelation. There’s also poignancy, anchored by a strong performance by Steve Carell in the film’s third act where he’s tried to make things right and has only succeeded in making them worse. He has a powerful scene with Ryan Gosling where he utters a single sentence that breaks his former mentor. It’s just too bad that all these great moments had to be bogged down by awful subplots, one-note characters, and a meandering storyline that oftentimes will ignore the main thread (Cal and Emily’s crumbling marriage) in favor of creating new ones (Robbie loves his babysitter, Gosling falls for Emma Stone). A few more months in the editing room would’ve done this film wonders.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is unsure about what it wants to be. It’s sold as a simple romantic comedy, but it’s more complex than that. It has a plot line that seems like a Hitch clone. It has emotionally poignant and affecting moments, but it also has that Ryan Gosling jungle music. In short, it needs more confidence in what it’s trying to say. And it may help if it wasn’t directed by two different people – one who thought they were making a comedy and another who thought they were making a drama.

Grade: C+

Side note: I know that I haven’t mentioned Emma Stone that much in this review. Yes, she is in the movie. Unfortunately most of the arc of her story has been told in the trailer (i.e. she ends up seeing Gosling’s abs) and she isn’t in the film all that much (ten minutes, tops). Just be aware that even though she’s featured prominently in the advertising for the film, her role is mostly a glorified cameo.

“Don’t Call Me Versatile”: 10 Actors Who Always Play The Same Character

There’s something to be said about how we prefer our entertainment to be familiar. Just look at the box office tallies of the top movies – sequels, remakes, films based on books, etc. – and you realize that homogeneity sells. It’s a good thing too; otherwise some actors would be out of a job.

Like going to a McDonald’s, the following actors follow a standardized character set that they play throughout all of their films. Sure, the characters may have different names, jobs, and romantic interests, but really, they ain’t that different.

10. Jason Bateman

Ever since appearing on the short-lived (but cult favorite) sitcom Arrested Development, Jason Bateman experienced something of a career renaissance. Unfortunately, everyone wants him to play Michael Bluth, or a variation thereof.

Stock Characteristics: Responsible, often overworked and under-appreciated, neurotic, and can be self-centred. Tends to be a cynical realist who expresses disbelief at the inane ideas of family and friends.

Evidence: The Change-Up, Horrible Bosses, The Switch, Extract, Up in The Air.

9. Michael Cera

The fictional son of Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth, Michael Cera has made a career out of playing the exact same character. Of any person on this list, he is the most obvious choice of an actor who has never reached outside his comfort zone.

Characteristics: Awkward, awkward, awkward. That’s about the extent of his range.

Evidence: Superbad, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Year One, Youth in Revolt, Juno.

8. Katherine Heigl

After the release of the 2007 hit Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl complained that the film was “sexist” and that the female characters were portrayed as “humorless and uptight shrews.” Then she starred in The Ugly Truth – on which she was an executive producer – and played the exact same role.

Characteristics: Driven, ambitious, hard-working. Tends be a little on the frosty side – and don’t expect many (or any) jokes from her. Tends to repel romantic interests for 65% of the running time for being “typical guys” or “inconsiderate assholes” and then spends the third act being completely in love with them.

Evidence: The Ugly Truth, 27 Dresses, Knocked Up, Life as We Know It.

7. Kristen Stewart

Stewart is a special case. While her characters could be portrayed differently, the young actress always puts her personal spin on the performance, which means two things: labored breathing and constant scowling.

Characteristics: Unhappy, difficulty showing emotion (smiles only occur as half-pained grimaces), and continually glum, moody, and generally not very pleasant to be around.

Evidence: Twilight Series, Adventureland, The Runaways, Welcome to the Rileys.

6. Adam Sandler

There could be a great Twilight Zone episode made of Adam Sandler’s career. A time traveler ends up in the future where only one Adam Sandler movie is played, but people don’t realize it because the film always has a different title. The time traveler becomes irate and agitated, trying to convince moviegoers that they’ve been watching the same film for the past twenty years but no one will listen to him. Eventually he ends up in an insane asylum, heavily medicated. While in the break room the same Adam Sandler movie is shown and the traveler watches with a lopsided smile on his face, laughing and shouting “I understand, I understand!”

Characteristics: A sweet, sensitive, down-to-earth man-child who delights in gross-out gags and childish antics before becoming a real grown-up.

Evidence: Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, Mr. Deeds, 50 First Dates, Big Daddy, Grown-Ups.

5. Ryan Reynolds

Hey look! It’s Van Wilder as the Green Lantern. And over there – it’s Van Wilder buried in a coffin! Reynolds broke onto the scene with a mediocre (but successful) American teen comedy National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. Like the titular undergraduate character who has schemed to keep himself in school for the better part of a decade, Reynolds has played the same character for a similar length of time.

Characteristics: Wise-cracking, charming, super-cool, likeable smart-ass with a rarely shown sensitive side who gets all the ladies.

Evidence: Green Lantern, The Change-Up, The Proposal, Adventureland, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

4. Steve Carrell

There are only two versions of Steve Carrell characters: Michael Scott and slightly less obnoxious versions of Michael Scott.

Characteristics: Tends to be a bit of a blowhard, anxious, nervous, neurotic, jealous, prone to fits of impotent anger,  bumbling, less than average intelligence, sexually awkward.

Evidence: The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Get Smart, Dinner for Schmucks, Evan Almighty, Anchorman.

3. Paul Rudd

First starting out as Phoebe’s boyfriend (then husband) Mike on Friends, Paul Rudd hasn’t made much of a transition from likeable everyman.

Characteristics: Likeable everyman with a hint of cynicism who wants to follow the dreams of his youth. Can be awkward and fumbling. Feels real bad when he hurts someone’s feelings.

Evidence: Dinner for Schmucks, How Do You Know, Role Models, I Love You, Man, Knocked Up.

2. Russell Brand

Brand is a commanding screen presence (and fantastic at comedy relief) as long as he is in a supporting role. Giving him the lead in Arthur highlighted the actor’s weaknesses (namely an inability to act “serious”) and showed what a grating character he plays when he’s onscreen an entire film.

Characteristics: Oversexed, goofy, British, overly enthusiastic, afflicted attention deficit disorder with a tenuous grasp on the difficulties normal (and impoverished) people face in everyday life.

Evidence: Get Him to The Greek, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Arthur.

1. Keanu Reeves

One word: Whoa.

Characteristics: Quiet intensity with constant blank looks of incomprehension that double as feelings for “love,” “anger,” or “determination.” Constantly seems to be questioning his existence…or wondering why he isn’t working on his beach tan.

Evidence: Point Break, Speed, Bill and Ted, The Matrix, Sweet November, Johnny Mnemonic.