Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Big Short

Is a likable movie a good movie? This is a question I've found myself pondering an awful lot since I started this blog, but I don't think any film has made me question this as much as The Big Short. This is one hell of an entertaining film, packed with great performances and such an enormous amount of energy that it's difficult to not want to smile from ear to ear throughout even despite the heavy subject matter. In some respects, this reminds me a great deal of The Wolf of Wall Street, but where Wolf is a far superior film is in its tonal balances. The Big Short is wildly entertaining, but it flicks between self-referential-ism, comedy, drama and politics so frequently and, often, so abruptly that it's jarring whenever the film heads off in a new direction. This is complicated subject matter with an awful lot of technical talk, and it's impressive that director/screenwriter Adam McKay has enabled the story to be followed easily on the big screen, but it's difficult to come away fully satisfied from a film that seems to have no idea what it wants to be.

The Big Short's lightning speed pacing allows the story to kick off almost immediately, and it's this refreshing energy that keeps the film afloat the entire way through. It simply never relents, it never gives you the chance to get your breath back and relax for even one scene. In fact, a great deal of this comes down to the fourth-wall-breaking trick that this film employs so often. Ryan Gosling's Jared Vennett narrates us through the opening sequence before telling us that he'll return in the film later on, and then when he does appear again he reminds us that he told us he'd come back. It's this tongue-in-cheek, giddy sense of humour that makes the film so entertaining even when its wild tonal imbalances are starting to become frustrating. One character talks the audience through the definition of a term, before realising that it's rather complicated and dull, and so he hands the reigns over to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to tell us again in a more audience friendly manner, before she promptly tells us to "fuck off". It's a brilliantly fun sequence, and in its own respect it works excellently, but it's trapped inside an important part of the film's narrative and it's difficult to take the following moments seriously even though, for the film's sake, we desperately need to.

There are some moments, though, where the film employs this fourth-wall-breaking to fantastic results. In the middle of a big conference, and after asking the important speaker a series of important questions, Mark Baum (Steve Carell) suddenly answers his phone and walks out of the room. As the camera follows him around, it stops on Vennett, as he plainly looks into the camera and says "Mark Baum actually did that. He actually did that". It's brilliantly funny, and it works especially well because it's in-keeping with the tone of that scene. Despite its importance to the narrative, the conference scene is largely a comedic portion of the film, and so a fourth-wall-breaking joke placed in the middle works exceptionally well. Another example comes where two smaller characters stumble across some important information left lying on a table, before one of them simply turns around to the camera and informs us that this "isn't how it happened in real life". Again, it fits within the scene and it doesn't distract from anything before or after it. It's a shame that the film's self-referential-ism is so jarringly uneven, as when it gets it right it makes for something genuinely exciting.

The Big Short is a complicated film to discuss in a spoiler-free review, so I've had to leave a lot of the film's second half out. The fourth-wall-breaking dies down a bit in the latter half of the film, and thankfully when it is used it's considerably more consistent than it is in the first half. But the film's final half also suffers from a weighty amount of plot to work through, before ending on a seemingly endless string of title cards informing us where the characters went next. If anything it simply proves how ambitious The Big Short is not only in the story it wants to tell, but the amount of it that it wants to tell. Even exceeding two hours there's still an awful lot of the story missing, but the film's generally excellent handling of its characters makes up for this. Finn Wittrock and John Magaro's Jamie and Charlie become the kind of young-spirited heart and soul of the film, and the ending to their story is genuinely affecting, while the admittedly long ending title cards all evoke some kind of emotion, be it humour or joy or upset. The characters are well handled, and the energetic pacing and solid performances all round keep this film fresh and exciting, but its tonal imbalances plague it an awful lot more than they should do. This is one of the most giddily likable films in a long time, but is that enough for it to be a real contender at the Oscars next month? I'm not quite sure.

To Summarise: It's overlong and suffers from a wide array of imbalances and inconsistencies, but The Big Short remains a fascinating and highly enjoyable comedy-drama due to its enormous energy, infectious likability and a plethora of solidly engaging performances.

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