The Big Short

The Big Short is one of the more clever, creative and different films to come down the mainstream movie track in a long time. It contains one of the year’s best acting performances. It is, unfortunately, a failure.

Why? Because it is too cute. Because it tries to explain arcane financial information in silly ways. Because it attempts to assign white hats and black hats where many hats should be gray. Because, ultimately, it is hard to cheer for these few winners when there were so many losers.

We all know what happened in 2007-2008. Okay, we don’t know exactly what happened but we know how the nation’s economic collapse affected each of us individually. The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s book, tries to tell part of that story with humor.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a Deutsche Bank employee on Wall Street who serves as narrator, occasionally turning directly to the camera in the middle of a scene to share a point of exposition. He drips smugness.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a California doctor who leads an investment group. Burry, a man with tons of nervous energy (the real life Burry has Asperger’s), guesses that the housing market will collapse in ’07 when many subprime mortgages are scheduled to adjust significantly higher. He makes huge bets (using his investors’ money) that the mortgage banking industry will suffer defaults on home loans. Bale’s performance as this quirky but self-assured gambler is among his best.

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) is part of a New York-based investment consortium which receives much of its funding from Morgan Stanley, a major Wall Street institution. Baum has a strong moral compass. He is concerned about right and wrong, yet he proceeds with betting against the banks—including Morgan Stanley.

Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) is a Boulder-based investor who wants to get in on “shorting” the mortgage market but his capitalization is too low. With help from Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker who has cashed out and retired, he gets in on the action.

Director Adam McKay (who co-wrote) includes clever quick montages of timely images to reflect the times. They include a Britney Spears clip to represent 2000 and a 1st generation iPhone to indicate 2007. The segments with Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez (alongside a real economist) attempting to simplify some of the complexity of finance are funny. Are they informative? A little.

McKay gets an “A” for ambition and a gold star for trying to relate the stories in Lewis’s book in a lighthearted manner. But The Big Short fails to accomplish its mission. I am betting against it.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is similar to other spy caper films you’ve seen, with a few interesting exceptions. Ryan (Chris Pine) is not just an ex-Marine in the CIA, he’s also an economist. And the caper centers on world market trading dirty tricks by devious Russians—particularly Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh)—designed to destroy the US economy.

US Navy Commander Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) recruits Ryan for the CIA. He discovers him at Walter Reed Hospital as Ryan is rehabbing from injuries suffered in a copter crash in Afghanistan. Ryan finishes school, joins the CIA and goes to work on Wall Street to monitor economic terrorism.

Upon detecting suspicious activity in accounts run by Cherevin, Ryan chooses to go to Moscow to confront him. Ryan’s fiancé Dr. Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) decides to follow along and gets caught up in the effort to fend off the Russian assault on world markets.

Because economic intrigue is not quite enough to sustain an “action” film, a corresponding plot has a van filled with explosives, driven by a man intent on destroying Wall Street physically (even as the wicked Ruskies are planning to beat us down financially).

Okay, there’s a lot going on here and some of it works and some of it does not work. It’s good to see an older Costner in this leadership role. (Seeing him in Navy dress blues briefly recalls that 1987 film No Way Out.) Branagh, who directs the film, is surprisingly good as the Russian bad guy.

Knightley is gorgeous and has shown great acting skills in the past. But in JR:SR, she’s of little value beyond eye candy. Her chemistry with Pine is almost non-existent. Pine is good and, after becoming a star via the Trek movies, has the stature to take on the Ryan role. He defines “rugged good looks.” Guys can appreciate his derring-do and ladies can get lost in those blue eyes.

A couple of plot holes and quick resolutions of complicated business may cause one to say, “Huh?” But if you just play along you’ll enjoy the ride.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is okay for a January release. But that’s what it is, a January release. (Note of interest: it’s rated PG-13, so you can send you mom who hated Wolf of Wall Street to see this one.)