The Big Short

The Big Short is one of those movies that is intended to make you uncomfortable — and it succeeds, twice over.

The film tells the story of the housing bubble and sub-prime mortgage fiasco that led to the economic collapse and stock market crash of 2008. It begins with the handful of loners and clear-eyed if vulgar realists who investigated, read what others didn’t, identified the unsustainable reality, and then figured out a way to make lots of money, even as the financial and political establishment was smugly convinced that the impending disaster couldn’t possibly occur.

bigshortbaleDon’t worry if you don’t know much about finance or economics — as the movie progresses you’ll get humorous little tutorials on the key concepts from exotic-looking women taking bubble baths, Anthony Bourdain figuring out what to do with old fish, and a prize-winning economist and Selena Gomez playing blackjack.  And, of course, all along the viewer knows the catastrophe is coming.  Even so, it’s uncomfortable to watch it unfold and to hear once again about Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and Countrywide and bailouts and the other events that made some people wonder if the American economy and capitalism would even survive the cataclysm.

It’s a powerful story, and The Big Short tells it well.  Its ensemble cast, which features Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Steve Carell, is excellent, but it’s not an ensemble movie in the traditional sense, because some of the principal players never interact on screen.  They’re each running their own funds, dealing with their own investors and institutional pressures and insecurities, seeing the overall mess from different perspectives and wondering whether they are witnessing fraud or imbecility or incompetence.  And, as the movie reaches the point where the world economy teeters on the brink, they convincingly portray the sense of astonishment and shaken wonder at how the hell it all happened in the first place.

So, reliving those grim days when fortunes were lost and the country plunged into recession is uncomfortable, for sure.  And the second uncomfortable moment comes when the movie ends — because the final message of The Big Short questions whether the same thing could happen again and whether new bubbles are percolating even as we speak.  One of the core themes of the film is that most of the Wall Street wizards really aren’t so wizard-like after all — just greedy hustlers who don’t really sweat the details or even fully understand why they’re making the obscene amounts of money they’re making and are oblivious to the risks they are creating for the rest of us who have to deal with the aftermath.

It doesn’t exactly make you feel super secure about your 401(k) plan, now does it?

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The Office Gets Ready To Turn Out The Lights

The Office is counting down to the last show of the series.  Kish and I enjoy the show, and we’re holding our breath that the characters we’ve come to love aren’t ruined forever as the producers seek to build tension for a big finale.

I may be the only person in America who was happy when Steve Carell left The Office.  I thought the Michael Scott character had become so painfully awkward and outlandish that the series was difficult to watch, and the Michael Scott stories were interfering with the show’s real strength — which is the ensemble of office workers.   Every moment of Michael Scott angst took time away from a Jim Halpert practical joke at the expense of Dwight Schrute, or droll Stanley Hudson comment, or Creed Bratton weirdness.  When Michael Scott finally left it cleared the way for the other characters to shine, and they did.

Many of the great American sitcoms have been ensemble efforts, rather than solo star vehicles.  Cheers, Seinfeld, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Taxi, among many others, all have been classic multi-character efforts.  What would Cheers have been without the characters shouting “Norm!” or listening to Cliff’s latest blowhard theory?  How much did Newman bring to Seinfeld, and the Reverend Jim add to TaxiThe Office characters are similarly capable of carrying their show as a group, and since Steve Carell’s departure the show has remained hilarious without the downside of the pitiable Michael Scott storylines.

This year, though, the show seems to have lost its way.  Pam and Jim are having marital difficulties, and a lbehind-the-camera sound technician has emerged as a suitor for Pam’s affections.  Andy Bernard, who may be the most unevenly written character in TV history, has gone off the deep end.  It’s as if the producers are searching for a dramatic conclusion — and I wish they would resist that temptation. We want to remember Jim and Pam as the young lovers who finally found each other or the happy newlyweds, not as some estranged couple fighting in a way that seems inconsistent with their well-established characters.

I’d be perfectly happy if the last episode featured more of the enjoyable antics of Dwight and Angela, and Oscar and Kevin, and Phyllis and Meredith, and the show ended with a Jim Halpert prank and Pam simply turning out the lights of the Dunder-Mifflin workroom a la The Mary Tyler Moore Show, as another workday ends.