Movie Reviews - 2015 postsTuesday January 19, 2016
Movie Review: Spotlight (2015)
For a drama about uncovering the Catholic church child molestation scandal, “Spotlight” is surprisingly undramatic. What’s the most dramatic moment? Racing to a copy machine before a government office closes? A lawyer circling a list of names? Its tone throughout is matter-of-fact. You might even call it objective.
Director Tom McCarthy keeps making good movies (“Station Agent,” “Win Win”), but as an actor his most famous role is probably Scott Templeton, the Baltimore Sun reporter who fabricated details and quotes and, well, people, in the fifth season of “The Wire.” Now he—Scotty Templeton!—has given us the best movie about investigative journalism since “The Insider.”
The more interesting point of comparison, though, may be with “All the President’s Men.” Both movies feature Ben Bradlee: Sr. (Jason Robards) in the first, Jr. (John Slattery, doomed to play bon vivants) here. Both movies focus on uncovering the corruption of powerful institutions (the White House, the Catholic Church) that loom large over their respective cities (D.C., Boston). The difference is in the numbers. For Woodward and Bernstein, the investigative thrust is toward the one: What did the president know and when did he know it? In “Spotlight,” the investigative thrust is toward the many. The question isn’t “How high does it go?” but “How widespread is it?” At first we have one child-abusing priest, then three; then 13; then 87. Each time, the newer number is met with incredulity. It seems an impossibly cynical suggestion. Then it’s eclipsed.
It takes a village
There aren’t many movie characters that intrigued me more this past year than Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron. He arrives at The Boston Globe from Florida with the reputation as a hatchet man. Is he? We wonder, along with Bradlee, and Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the head of the four-person Spotlight investigative team. Will they lose headcount? Is Spotlight being cut altogether? There’s an initial tentativeness around Baron that feels real, and he doesn’t help matters by being a slightly odd duck. He’s soft-spoken, seemingly distracted but actually focused. His oddities, his stranger-in-a-strange-land persona, jumpstarts the investigation, since he sees Boston with fresh eyes. If Schreiber had had more screentime, I think he would’ve been nominated for an Oscar.
Each member of the Spotlight team has a particular focus. The hyperactive Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) sniffs around the offices of attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represents more than 50 plaintiffs in separate lawsuits against the Catholic Church, and who is not impressed with the Globe’s coverage thus far. Initially he’s not helpful. But he appreciates Rezendes’ doggedness, and eventually his work, and he keeps pointing the way. He’s this movie’s Deep Throat, except they meet on park benches in the afternoon rather than parking garages at 3 a.m.
Meanwhile, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) goes door-to-door to find victims and victimizers, while Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) realizes halfway through the investigation that a kind of halfway house for abusive priests is a block away from where he’s raising his kids; that’s when it gets personal for him. (Sidenote: Critics keep talking up how much the actors actually look like journalists, and it’s particularly true for James with his soup-strained moustache; but it’s not true at all for McAdams. Sorry. Bless your heart, Rachel, you give it a go, but you’re still way too pretty for print journalism.)
Robby is the guy who deals with the mucky-mucks and poo-bahs. At one point, he accuses a rich, seemingly slick PI-plaintiff attorney, Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup), of making money off abuse, and Macleish tosses it back in his face. He alerted the paper years ago, he says; and the paper did nothing. Do we ever get closure on this? Who’s at fault? Robby? Bradlee?
The larger message is that no one is clean. “If it takes a village to raise a child,” Garabedian says later, “it takes a village to abuse one.”
Tell me the half of it
“Spotlight” is a treasure trove of great dialogue. Early on, Baron is telling Robby how he wants to find a way to make the paper essential to its readers:
Robby: I like to think it already is.
Baron [pause, assessment]: Fair enough.
Or this moment when Pfeiffer is drawing out an abuse victim in the shadow of a nearby church:
Pfeiffer: Joe, did you ever try to tell anyone?
Joe: Like who—a priest?
Even this, as Rezendes sits with a beleaguered Garabedian, who really is begging to tell his story, during a lunch break from the local courthouse:
Garabedian: You don’t know the half of it.
Rezendes: Tell me the half of it, Mitch.
I love that 9/11, of all days, is a kind of annoyance in this story; it interrupts the story, as it interrupted all of our stories. I like the looming churches, and all they signify, and the AOL billboard outside the Globe offices, and all it signifies. It’s a reminder of the other battle journalists are fighting—against obsolescence. “Spotlight” shows us the necessity of good investigative journalism even as we are creating the circumstances—by what we buy, what we click on—that will soon restrict its efficacy. The last words we hear are Robby’s, picking up a phone. “This is Spotlight,” he says. The story is out, the phones are ringing, the work continues. It should be triumphant; and it is. But it also feels like the end of something.
Movie Review: The Revenant (2015)
Glass is an interesting choice for the name of a man who doesn’t break, but it turns out it’s not a choice.
Hugh Glass was part of an expedition that went up the Missouri river, from South Dakota to Montana, on a fur-trading expedition in the early 1820s. He was attacked by a bear, left for dead by a man named Fitzgerald, survived, sought revenge. It’s all there. In real life, of course, the revenge isn’t as clean as in the movie. And it’s not clean in the movie.
“The Revenant” (meaning: one who has returned, particularly from the dead) is a shifting landscape of betrayal and revenge; it’s a movie you feel as much as see. In old westerns, arrows flew threw the air like toothpicks; here they have heft and force. The bear is fast, monstrous; you feel its weight as it smashes Leonardo DiCaprio’s face into the mud, and its hot breath literally fogs the camera. The power of the river current is overwhelming, the chill of the wind debilitating. It’s a palpable movie. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu could’ve called it, “The Unrelentant,” because it doesn’t stop.
It’s also gorgeously filmed, and one of the best movies of the year.
The turnin’ of the earth
It’s actually a collision of two westerns, isn’t it? The story is set in motion by Elk Dog (Duane Howard), the leader of the Arikara tribe, who is searching for his kidnapped daughter, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o). That’s why the fur-trading expedition is attacked—mistakenly, it turns out, they had nothing to do with Powaqa—and why Glass and the men flee down the Missouri, then take to land. They’re pursued. In this way, Elk Dog is a Native American version of John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards, in John Ford’s “The Searchers.” Ironic, given Ethan’s thoughts on the matter:
Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We'll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.
Glass’ story, meanwhile, is a western tale of revenge a la “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” He loses everything and becomes revenge personified; but he never becomes wish-fulfillment fantasy in the way Clint Eastwood does. He’s too broken; it’s all too awful.
In fleeing the Arikara, fur pelts—the whole point of the expedition—have to be left behind, and that doesn’t sit right with Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy); and in a backwoods Maryland accent so thick it makes Bain’s enunciation in “The Dark Knight Rises” seem as precise as John Houseman’s, he bitches, threatens, and casts aspersions on Glass and his half-breed son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). There’s a good line from Glass berating Hawk for his intemperance in native Pawnee: “They don’t hear you; they only see the color of your face.”
It’s a dirty world Inarritu recreates, but there’s something extra dirty about Fitzgerald. Once almost scalped, he now scalps. He complains about Indians stealing from the dead even as he does the same. He feels screwed, and is: After all that work and risk, we find he still owes the company store.
His most awful moment may be when he confronts Glass, rendered immobile and helpless by the bear attack, and offers to end his pain if he’ll only signal by blinking. It’s like making the signal breathing. Fitzgerald needs Glass to die so he can move on, but he wants permission and rigs the game. Or does he? We watch Glass’ helpless face, his eyes struggling not to blink; but then he seems to acquiesce. He closes them completely. Later, in their climactic struggle, Fitzgerald will bring this up. “You and me, we had a deal,” he says. But as Fitzgerald tries to suffocate Glass, and as Glass struggles, Hawk arrives, attacks Fitzgerald, and is killed himself. Then Glass is tossed into a hastily dug grave. “We buried him proper,” Fitzgerald says later. Everything the man touches turns to dishonor.
It’s a long road back for Glass, and Inarritu doesn’t allow him (or us) any cinematic shortcuts. We see him go through animal stages: crawling on all fours; eating small birds, and raw fish, and liver. It’s almost a triumph when he can walk upright again, a man again, but a man with one thing in mind: revenge. Which is its own burden. At one point, Glass is saved by a lone Pawnee, Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud), trying to reconnect with his tribe, who tells him, “Revenge is in the creator’s hands, not man’s.” Glass will think back on this as he finally has his hands around Fitzgerald’s throat. It’s the high ground, but he—and we—don’t want it. Instead, he takes a middle ground. He lets the current, and the Arikara, take Fitzgerald.
There are still honorable men in this world: Hikuc; Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the expedition leader; Bridger (Will Poulter, quite good), Fitzgerald’s unwilling partner, who is not witness to Fitzgerald’s crimes, and remains haunted by their actions. Each man surprised me a little. The modern western gives us the cackling and the profane, suggesting this was the norm in a harsh, lawless world. These guys seem honorable despite that world. Or maybe because of it. To distinguish themselves from it. To keep it at a distance.
Of course, they don’t end well. Capt. Henry counsels Glass against pursuing Fitzgerald but accompanies him anyway; he’s scalped for this trouble. And Hikuc? After saving Glass’ life, he’s strung up by French forces—the ones who kidnapped Powaqa in the first place—who hang a sign around his neck: On est tous des sauvages. “We are all savages.” Not quite. The savages survive.
Light as a principle of survival
Nature may be the most savage of all. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki film both the grandeur and horror of nature, along with the smallness of man (both ways) against that landscape. In a great article in Film Comment, David Thomson says the use of natural light in the film “addresses mankind’s relationship with nature before electricity.” He call it “a principle of survival,” which is exactly right. So often in this movie light means life, or a chance at it. It bursts through, and we’re grateful.
Near the end, after Glass lets the Arikara take Fitzgerald, he kneels on all fours by the river, spent, as the Indians pass. They don’t kill him—he freed Powaqa from the French—but they, and she, are not exactly grateful. She views him imperiously from above. That’s the feel of nature, too. If it views us, that’s how it views us.
Some of my favorite moments have nothing to do with the plot: the avalanche in the distance after Capt. Henry’s death; Glass and Hikuc catching snowflakes on their tongue. Is it too improbable? Too much? Maybe. When it was over, I was exhausted. I thought, “Beautiful, but I doubt if I’ll ever want to see it again.” It’s a day later and I want to see it again.
Movie Review: Goodnight Mommy (2015)
The original German title for “Goodnight Mommy” is “Ich Seh, Ich Seh” or “I see, I see,” which is ironic since I didn’t see the film’s central conceit. Near the end, when it’s revealed, I went, “Holy shit.” Long pause. “Right.” Longer pause. “Of course.”
It’s a moody, atmospheric film that’s majorly fucked up. I flashed early to “Lord of the Flies,” thinking that, of the twin boys, the more favored one, Elias, was like Ralph, the benevolent leader, while the one with mommy problems, Lukas, was Jack, who appeals to our worst instincts. Which one would dominate? I also wondered this early on: Who’s really in danger here—the mother (Susanne Wuest) or the kids (Elias and Lukas Schwarz)? From the conversation surrounding the movie, not to mention its trailer, not to mention the poster, I assumed the mother would become menaced. But she’s so awful in the early going, I began to doubt this.
The key is in one of the first conversations with the mother. Playing outside in cornfields (cf. “Children of the Corn”), the boys come home to find their mother with her head bandaged from an operation. Was she in an accident? Did she have plastic surgery? She’s curt, demands quiet and darkness. She keeps pulling the blinds. The boys’ clothes are muddy and she demands they strip near the laundry and take a shower. Then she feeds them. We see her pouring a glass of juice for Elias, and we get this conversation:
Elias: Lukas wants some, too.
Mother: Then he can ask me himself.
Elias: You only made supper for me.
Mother: You know why.
[Mother goes away; Lukas drinks the juice.]
Elias to Lukas: You should apologize.
[Lukas shakes head.]
That’s the key right there, and I’m stunned I didn’t see it. It helps, of course, that in English, and I assume in German, the singular and plural form of “you” is the same. I don’t know how they’ll translate this in China, for example, where the language differentiates: ni for you and ni-men for all of you.
The mother seems like an awful person—harsh and brittle. She doesn’t want visitors. “If anyone asks,” she explains, “tell them I’m ill.” Putting ointment on her damaged face, she shoots an accusatory bloodshot eye at one of the boys. (It helps, too, that we keep mixing up the boys.) When someone actually stops by, and one of the boys pads gently into her room to wake her, she pretends to be asleep; when he leaves, she crunches harshly on the snack she’d been hiding in her mouth. It was at this point that I wondered if the boys were in danger from her.
Some horror films are relentless throughout; the point is to exhaust us (“It Follows” is a good example). Others are often supernatural mysteries to be solved (“El Orfanato,” “The Others”). This one has a bit of mystery, but it’s mostly looming dread. We wonder two things: 1) When will it get bad?; 2) How bad will it get?
We realize, bit by bit, there was an accident, and a marital separation, and the mother is trying to start over. This humanizes her in our eyes. At the same time, the boys begin to feel that the mother isn’t their mother. They have nightmares about her; they begin to demonize her. It’s a clean cross: The more human she seems to us, the more demonic to them.
Eventually they tie her to her bed, ask questions, demand that she prove she’s their mother. She’s an idiot for not responding immediately and authoritatively, but she doesn’t. They demand to know where her birthmark went (it was on her face, and got lost in the accident), so, with a magnifying glass, and the sun from the nearby window, they try to burn one in. When she cries, the put masking tape over her mouth. Later they glue her mouth shut with superglue. It’s all so horrible. She fails at her one chance at escape, and wakes to find herself glued the ground, one eye glued horribly shut. And it’s here that we get the big reveal. This is what she says to Elias:
I’ll play along. I’ll talk to Lukas again. Lukas will be alive. [Pause] Elias. It’s not your fault that Lukas died.
But it’s too late by that point.
Writer-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz open their film with footage of a happy mother and children singing on TV, a la the Von Trapps. We’re in rural Austria, after all. But it’s a different rural Austria. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night. Mommy.
Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
What’s your favorite moment? Mine is the lightsaber lying in the snow and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) trying to beckon it with the Force, and struggling, and confused by the struggling, but finally the lightsaber breaks free and flies towards him—and, whoops, past him—and into the hand of Rey (Daisy Ridley), who stares at it in wonder, and then takes up the Jedi pose as the music wells. I had tears in my eyes after that.
And I knew it was going to happen. That’s the thing. It was totally telegraphed. But still. Tears.
A lot of the movie was totally telegraphed. Certainly (and again, please accept this spoiler alert) the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) at the hands of his son, Kylo Ren, on the walkway over the giant chasm in the heart of the Starkiller Base, which is like the Death Star to the 100th power, as all of the principle characters, and I mean all of them, Chewie and Rey and Finn (John Boyega), watch in horror. That scene did nothing for me. Although, I have to admit, after Han is cut by the lightsaber but before he falls forever into the void, I liked it when he caresses his son’s cheek. It’s not only a tender gesture but a kind of exquisite revenge. Kylo, after all, is fighting to stay on the dark side, and, for him, love hurts. “I want to be free of this pain,” he says, right before he sticks it in. So Han, in a way, sticks it back.
But most of my favorite moments in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” involve Rey. Ridley lights up the screen with the force of her face, and the humanity in it. I think I’ve got a crush.
Here’s the problem everyone’s identified: She’s a bit of a quick study. What’s the first time we see Luke Skywalker summon anything with the power of the Force? Is it his lightsaber in the snow, as he hangs upside down in the wampa’s cave in “The Empire Strikes Back”? That’s after how much training and how many months/years? Rey, she does it after, what, a day or two? And with no training? And with a Jedi master also trying to summon it away from her? But I get why Disney and writer-director J.J. Abrams went this route. Our attention spans are shorter than they were a long time ago, in movie theaters far, far away.
Rey of New Hope
So Rey is the key to it all. She’s the awakening of the title, the ray of hope, the big question mark. “Who’s the girl?” they keep asking in the movie. “Yeah, who is she?” we keep asking after the movie. Is she a Skywalker? Luke’s daughter? Probably not. If I had to guess, I’d guess Kenobi. She avoids detection in the Starkiller Base the way Obi-wan did in the Death Star.
Here’s what we know about her:
- She’s a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku.
- Apparently she was abandoned there as a child, and she’s been living hand-to-mouth ever since.
- At the same time, she wants/needs to go back to Jakku, because she feels ... her family is coming back? Is that right? So is she deluded or far-seeing? Deluded, I think. I think that’s why Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) later tells her, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it’s ahead.”
I do hope there’s not much of a connection to the Skywalkers. The “Star Wars” universe collapses in on itself way too often; way too many roads lead back to Anakin. I’d rather this one didn’t. Plus, if it was Luke, then he was the one who abandoned her. Which would be a total dick move.
Instead, he simply abandons the galaxy. First he saves it (in “The Return of the Jedi”); then, at some point, he trains young Jedis/Padowans but Kylo Ren, son of Han and Leia, turns to the Dark Side, like his grandfather (Darth Vader, yo), and slaughters the rest of the students. We see a flash of the massacre when Rey touches Luke’s lightsaber in Maz’s cantina basement. This is why Luke leaves to a distant part of the galaxy. And that’s why the Empire strikes back (this time as the “First Order”), and we get our oppressive regime again along with our embattled underdogs again. It’s as if the Ewoks never danced.
So it’s odd that Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), this movie’s Emperor, is desperate to find the map to Luke, hidden in the droid BB8. “If Skywalker returns,” he says, “a new Jedi will rise.” Really? Didn’t he already try that? And didn’t it lead to a massacre? So what are you afraid of?
But that’s the plot device that drives the movie, and, yeah, the movie is similar to “Star Wars IV: A New Hope.” Way similar. Intel is hidden in a droid (BB8), who winds up on a desert planet and is befriended by an orphan who is powerful in the Force (Rey), along with a dude who keeps trying to get away from the Rebellion even as he keeps returning to it (Finn). We’ve seen this story before. There’s just so many similarities it’s not worth going into.
It’s also not the first time J.J. Abrams has copied off of George Lucas’ paper (see: “Star Trek” in 2009). Not to mention Steven Spielberg’s (see: “Super 8” in 2011). Do you know “Direct the movie you want to see”? Well, Abrams directs the movies he wanted to see when he was 13.
So why does it work?
One word: personality. The new characters are fun, and the actors who play them exude charm and humanity. Plus the dialogue works. Imagine that: the dialogue. In a Star Wars movie. Take that, prequels!
Finn tries to lead Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) off the First Order’s ship.
Finn (sotto voce): OK, stay calm, stay calm.
Poe: I am calm.
Finn: I’m talking to myself.
Han to Chewie on an ice planet: Oh really, you’re cold?
Finn to Capt. Phasma: I’m in charge! I’m in charge!
Han: Bring it down.
But you know who gets short shrift here? Leia. Again.
After “Jedi,” anyone with a mind went, “Wait, weren’t they twins? So why is it all about Luke? Why is Leia in a bikini and chained to Jabba the Hutt when she too has the power of the Force?” Rey, in this movie, is a way to restore some (gender) balance to the Force. Which she does. But Leia still gets short shrift. She’s a general now, rather than a mere princess, but what does she really do? Has a few scenes with Han. Nags him a bit. About their son. Even this is wrong. Somehow it’s up to Han to turn Kylo Ren around when it’s from Leia that he inherited the Force, and it’s Leia’s father he’s obsessed with. So why doesn’t she go after him? Probably because we’d rather see Han/Harrison in action than Leia/Carrie. But from their perspective it makes no sense.
I’ll still take it. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is what the Star Wars universe is supposed to be: fun. We get desert planets, forest planets, ice planets, water planets. The good guys win, the bad guys stay in power (for the next movie), and my man Luke makes an appearance at the 11th hour and 59th minute. Better, they give us new blood: Rey and Finn and BB8 and Poe, and you’re confident these guys will carry the mantle. You hope the filmmakers realize that. You hope the sequels won’t be so derivative. You hope Abrams and Disney know that the belonging we seek is not behind us, it’s ahead.
Movie Review: The Big Short (2015)
“The Big Short” is the important, eat-your-vegetables movie that goes down like an ice cream sundae. It’s got big stars, zips, is fun. It shows us Margot Robbie in a bathtub, talking directly to the camera and using the word “fuck.” True, the actual quote is “Now fuck off,” but feel free to extrapolate.
It also concerns one of the most earthshaking events in our lifetime: the global financial meltdown of 2007-08. Before the closing title credits we get some of the numbers: $5 trillion lost, 8 million jobs lost, 6 million homes lost. And that’s just in America. So why did it happen?
For more than a decade, easy money was made (in mortgage-backed securities) in a way that seemed risk-free, so the powers-that-be kept upping the ante until it was no longer risk-free. Until it sank the world economy.
It also happened because regulation was nowhere. Regulation (in the form of the SEC and ratings agencies, such as Moody’s and S&P) was in bed with Wall Street. Sometimes literally, as the movie suggests.
It also happened because you and I let it happen; because we’re perpetually distracted.
Country club/stripper club
There’s a great early line about Lewis Ranieri, a bond trader with Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment firm, in the 1980s:
He changed your life more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together.
This is how things used to work. Banks loaned you money for a house, you paid it back with interest, end of story. Wall Street wasn’t interested because each mortgage was small potatoes and required too much work to figure out the risk-factor of the individual homeowner. It was Ranieri’s genius to take a bunch of mortgages, cut them up, and bundle them together as mortgage-backed securities, which minimized risk and turned small potatoes into big ones. Suddenly, bankers went from the country club to the stripper club, and your mortgage was no longer held by the bank but by ... I don’t even really know. I guess the investment firm? No, the investors? Apologies in advance if/when I use the incorrect nomenclature. I’m sure, throughout, I’ll be talking about this stuff like someone talking up the number of “points” a baseball team scores.
But I understand this much: Because there was risk-free money to be made, the banks kept expanding to whom they would loan money, and the terms of those loans; and in the end we got subprime mortgages.
We get a sense of that expansion when Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his hedge-fund team travel to Florida in 2005 to investigate whether they should short (bet against) the housing market. They meet an exotic dancer who owns/is flipping five houses, and two douchebag brokers making a killing by selling homes to people who can’t afford them. Our hedge-fund guys also meet the future: neighborhoods abandoned by people unable to pay their mortgages when the adjustable rates go up.
“The Big Short” follows four main storylines:
- Michael Burry M.D. (Christian Bale), whose lack of social skills is offset by his math skills. He sees the looming disaster first when the internet bust of 2001 doesn’t correlate to a dip in Silicon Valley housing prices; in fact, they go up.
- Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who follows Burry’s coattails from inside Wall Street but can’t get many others to sign on. Conventional wisdom says a bet against the housing market is a sucker’s bet.
- Mark Baum’s team, which gets involved because of: 1) a wrong number; 2) Baum’s desire to stick it to Wall Street.
- Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock): Two Colorado garage hedge-fund guys who follow Burry’s lead, and, with a reluctant neighbor/mentor, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), try to cash in.
Bale is wonderfully off, Gosling a sharp sword. Carrell is grasping, empathetic and the movie’s moral center, while Pitt shows us a quieter morality. He’s a man who left Wall Street long ago; he’s trying to cleanse himself. Behind the bushy beard and longish hair, Pitt barely moves a facial muscle; he acts with his eyes. He sees the looming disaster and knows it’s a double-edged sword. They all do. They know that in sticking it to Wall Street, everyone suffers.
There’s a nice early scene when Burry visits Goldman Sachs, and lets the suits in the conference room know he wants to bet against the real estate market by buying credit default swaps. $5 million? they suggest. $100 million, he answers. They can’t believe their luck. As he leaves, you see them all laughing and high-fiving one another. Then he goes to Deutsche Bank and others and does the same. He winds up betting against the housing market to the tune of $1.3 billion.
Here’s the question the movie doesn’t answer: How much did these credit default swaps, and subsequent ones, help sink the system? I.e., how less bad would it have been if these guys hadn’t gotten skin in the game?
Writer-director Adam McKay, mostly known for Will Ferrell comedies (“Talladega Nights,” “The Other Guys,” “Anchorman”), keeps us both entertained and informed. He intercuts with relevant quotes (“It ain’t what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” – Mark Twain), and cuts away from the action to have stars (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain) explain the more complicated details of the financial system. Characters constantly break the fourth wall, particularly Gosling’s Vennett.
I could’ve done without the star interludes, to be honest. Robbie in a bathtub was more distracting than informative, and having Selena Gomez, all of 23, explain CDOs was just annoying.
But the script, written with Charles Randolph (“The Interpreter”), from the book by Michael Lewis, is super sharp:
- “It’s like 2+2 = fish.”
- “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I'll have my wife's brother arrested.”
- “The truth is like poetry, and most people hate poetry.”
I thrilled at the intelligence of this movie. I can see myself watching it again and again.
One of my favorite exchanges is during the Florida trip, when the douchebag brokers keep talking up the dupes to whom they sell subprime mortgages. Baum, confused, talks sotto voce with his team:
Baum: I don't get it. Why are they confessing?
Moses: They're not confessing.
Collins: They're bragging.
In America, every braggart is confessing; you just need to listen.