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Arts & Culture

Cinema Under The Stars Presents 'The Big Short'

Jeremy Strong as Vinnie Daniel, Rafe Spall as Danny Moses, Hamish Linklater as Porter Collins, Steve Carell as Mark Baum, Jeffry Griffin as Chris and Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett in "The Big Short."
Paramount Pictures
Jeremy Strong as Vinnie Daniel, Rafe Spall as Danny Moses, Hamish Linklater as Porter Collins, Steve Carell as Mark Baum, Jeffry Griffin as Chris and Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett in "The Big Short."

Oscar-winning film screens at outdoor venue

Film Review: 'The Big Short'
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "The Big Short."

Last month The Big Short won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. If you missed the film when it opened last year KPBS film critic Beth Accomando says you can catch it this weekend at Cinema Under the Stars. The Big Short looks to the 2008 market collapse and suggests maybe we haven’t learned anything. Adam McKay’s film takes on the task of explaining the subprime mortgage crisis. CLIP Wall Street took a good idea about mortgage bonds and turned it into an atomic bomb of fraud and stupidity that’s on it’s way to decimating the world’s economy… How do you really feel?... I’m glad you still have a sense of humor, I wouldn’t if I were you. McKay has a sense of humor and perhaps comedy’s the only viable weapon in the face of such greed, stupidity, and utter absurdity. He makes the economic meltdown entertaining while not entirely forgetting how devastating it was. Steve Carell gives a standout performance as an angry hedge funder and when you’re done laughing you’ll be angry too. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Companion viewing

"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" (2005)

"Inside Job" (2010)

"Margin Call" (2011)

"The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013)

"99 Homes" (2015)

Last month "The Big Short" won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. If you missed the film when it opened last year you can catch it this weekend at Cinema Under the Stars.

I missed reviewing "The Big Short" when it opened last year and its recent Oscar win coupled with a return screening at the lovely outdoor Cinema Under the Stars affords me a perfect opportunity to do a catch-up review.

"The Big Short," based on Michael Lewis' book, looks to the 2008 market collapse and suggests maybe we haven’t learned anything.

The film, directed and co-written by "Anchorman's" Adam McKay, begins with the basic concept that the whole subprime mortgage crisis is both too complicated and too boring for most Americans to have bothered to try and figure out. But McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph remain undaunted and take on the challenge of explaining the economic meltdown through a variety of often clever approaches.

First, they give us a little rundown of how banking went from dull old men sharing lunches to slick operators at strip joints (yes, an oversimplification). Then they point out that the financial market deliberately makes things obscure and complicated so we shouldn't feel bad for not knowing all this stuff. McKay also offers Margot Robbie (recently seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street") naked in a bubble bath to explain what subprime mortgages are all about. He also has the financial wheelers and dealers in the film make their own attempts to clue us in on what's going down.

In some ways Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is our touchstone. He's socially awkward, perpetually angry, but underneath he seems to have a moral compass that allows him to see who's taking advantage of whom. At one point Baum talks to a pair of mortgage lenders that baffle him with what he deems confessions about their lending scams, but his colleague points out that the two men aren't confessing, they are bragging.

Later, Baum bluntly explains at a presentation, "Wall Street took a good idea about mortgage bonds and turned it into an atomic bomb of fraud and stupidity that’s on it’s way to decimating the world’s economy." When heckled he responds, "I’m glad you still have a sense of humor."

McKay maintains a sense of humor because perhaps comedy’s the only viable weapon in the face of such greed, stupidity and utter absurdity. It's an unexpected approach and one that smartly pays off because the brisk pace and humorous assault on Wall Street keep the audience engaged — make the economic meltdown entertaining while not entirely forgetting how devastating it was.

But it's in striking that balance where I find the film runs into some problems. McKay's other films are mostly low-brow comedies — in addition to "Anchorman" there's "Talladega Nights," "Step Brothers," and "The Other Guys"). He knows how to play comedy but he lacks the edge and bite to make this a truly stinging satire that puts the knife into Wall Street and then turns the blade.

The other issue I have is that the main characters are all made likable and are presented almost like underdog heroes, yet they profited from the market downturn that left millions of Americans without homes and with savings or retirement funds devastated. He takes a couple moments to remind us of this but then quickly moves on.

So while I commend him for finding a clever way to make a dense and potentially dull topic accessible, I wish he had just a little more savvy and depth to push the film into true greatness rather than slick showmanship.

A big shout out though to the cast. Carell in particular gives a standout performance as the angry hedge funder Baum who has a nose for bullshit and a pit bull's tenacity to stay on it to try and uncover the fraud. The whole crew supporting Baum/Carell are also simply AAA: Jeremy Strong as Vinnie Daniel, Rafe Spall as Danny Moses and Hamish Linklater as Porter Collins.

"The Big Short" (rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity) makes you laugh but will leave you angry about what happened, who didn't get held responsible, and what's still happening now.

Here's a look at the historical accuracy of the film and here's an introduction to the real characters from the book.

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