“The Big Short”—We Were All Duped

The Big Short
The Big Short

“The Big Short”, based on Michael Lewis’s book, is a film that wildly fluctuates between comedy and deadly serious criticism of Wall Street.

The producers, shouting out “Finance For Dummies”, follow a group of outlier financial analysts who predicted and bet on the fall of the U.S. housing market. 2011’s “Margin Call” told a similar story. “Wolf of Wall Street” also focused on investment banking as one excessive party, with attempts at humor.

The Big Short, a true story, feels like a lecture with subtitled definitions of arcane financial acronyms like CDO in PowerPoint slides. The tone becomes wearying, even nonsensical. For example, placing the beautiful Margot Robbie of “Wolf on Wall Street” in a bubble bath to explain what a “subprime” loan is. Laughable?

More a powerful expose of the securities market and how Wall Street bet against the ignorance of the average investor, “The Big Short” sometimes does entertain the viewer as we laugh at ourselves for our guileless trust in those folks who duped us out of billions of dollars of our hard-earned money. We feel the horror of understanding that on Wall Street greed trumps common sense. The film shines light on the backrooms of the financial meltdown and collapse, bringing self-interest and corruption into the stark light of the banking and financial world.

The cast, particularly Steve Carell and Christian Bale, own “The Big Short”, channeling the “Boiler Room” and “Glengarry Glen Ross” as whistleblowers who realize that gaming the system can’t last. Playing a changed man whose brother paid the ultimate sacrifice in Wall Street battles, Mark Baum (Carell) vows to uncover the corruption that allowed the system to become rogue.

Bale’s Michael Burry, a doctor turned broker, has an analytical brilliance about the pending financial doom which goes unrecognized, even thwarted, when his bosses are threatened. Annoyingly, his character beats on drums in his basement while projecting when the housing market will crash.  Reflecting  on subprime loans and duplicitous securities created to bundle high-risk mortgages in such a complicated way, Burry understands  that professionals as well as the average investor have no clue what the mortgages represent or who owns them.

As the debacle is in free-fall, Baum is incredulous that his team has bet against their own umbrella entity, Morgan Stanley. The imploding financial system caused by corporate greed and deceit has even fooled him.

Both Carell and Bale give some of the best performances of their careers. Yet cinematic clips jump from one scene to the next, attempting to evoke the financial crisis of 2008, with rap and other distracting scenes overlying the depressing subject of capitalism gone amuck. Ryan Gosling narrates by talking directly to the camera a la Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”, one of my least favorite film conceits.

The demented and corrupt circus of Wall Street can only exist based upon a society which blindingly trusts them. Even the “good guys” (Baum and Burry) are ultimately motivated by making obscene amounts of money. Isn’t that what society tells us we have to do, in order to be valued? It’s sick and the whole thing has started up again, “The Big Short” informs us before the ending credits. Neither regulators, nor banks, nor the public seem to care enough about the damage of a cycle of boom and bust to really do anything about it. They – we – smell money. Ultimately a bleak repeat of history.

Not as good as “Wolf on Wall Street” or the superior “Margin Call” but we need reminding: we are all being duped.

 

“American Hustle”:—Everyone Hustles To Survive

13_2654_Sony_Form3_AdamsBanner_R9With its ensemble cast, this film has received almost unanimous accolades for the universally stunning performances, under the direction of David O. Russell. Still at the top of his game (after “I Heart Huckabees”, “The Fighter”, and “Silver Linings Playbook”).   All of Russell’s movies, intentionally or not, are the embodiment of a certain malaise, the sense that we have lost our community spirit, and everyone is on his or her own.  It is a war of all against all, or at least a cold indifference of all to all.

“American Hustle” is about the ultimate con game, of which there have been many in US history involving financial get-quick schemes.  (“Hustle” is purportedly based on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970’s).  How far are people willing to go to grasp the golden ring, to try to capture the American Dream:  namely, wealth as synonymous with identity and happiness?  “American Hustle” goes even further, digging deeper into how much we lie to ourselves, in order to believe what we want to believe.

But on a more personal level, this film is also about human relationships:  who can be trusted and who can’t.  That is the nature of a con game:  building trust only to deceive and swindle.  In “Hustle” we see the main character, Irving Rosenfeld (another riveting performance by Christian Bale), a vain and insecure man obsessed with combing over his bald spot, try to build a successful business presence in New Jersey through a small dry-cleaning chain.  Enter Amy Adams, also a mover and shaker, as the beautiful Sydney Prosser,  who wants to badly leave her personal history behind and who quickly becomes Rosenfeld’s astute business partner and lover.  Irving and Sydney soon discover how a con game can connect them to greater financial opportunities. Together they meet Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper, again surprising  with a winning interpretation of human vanity, ambition, and vulnerability), a mafia kingpin (Robert DeNiro), and the Camden, New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner).  (A small part by  Louis CK as the FBI supervisor is exceptionally well-played too.)  Rosenfeld’s dealings  with these characters hinges on a masterful scheme that will scandalize and destroy all its participants.

The small part played by Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, the wife and mother of Irving’s child, is virtuoso acting that startles at times.  Lawrence is almost unrecognizable in body, facial expressions, and voice.  When she is on screen, my eyes could rest on no one else.  Each slither and flirtatious gesture is both brassy and calculated, suggesting an intelligence beneath the bleached blond hair of a bimbo.  As Rosalyn, Lawrence eliminates the stereotypes of what intelligence should look like and be like.  Amy Adams is the perfect counterpoint:  both are exceptionally beautiful sexy women,  in love with the same man, in a zero sum game.

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“American Hustle” boasts a combination of craftsmanship and delectable moviegoing pleasure set in a time period of disco, that holds a nostalgic if discomforting appeal to baby boomers.  The hustle to survive is just that:  all are wounded and no one heals.  Run to see it so you can enjoy it for its own value and then wait to see if it wins Best Picture from the Academy Awards!

 

“The Fighter”–A Knockout

The 2010 blockbuster and critics’ darling, “The Fighter”, won Academy Awards for best supporting actor (an astounding Christian Bale) and best supporting actress (the masterful Melissa Leo).  However, I hate boxing movies, especially the tawdry “doormat turned boxing champion” variety we have seen in movies like “Rocky”.  This movie, however, is more in the genre of “Raging Bull” or “Million Dollar Baby”, movies in which “boxing” is a metaphor for the volatility of punches that life can throw to anyone, especially the underdog.

This time around the story is about Irish American Micky Ward, an actual boxing hero in working-class Boston during the 1990’s.  Mark Wahlberg, who both directs and plays the role of Micky Ward, has said he was inspired by the local fighter and determined to tell his story on the silver screen.  And the story is a remarkable one.

There are actually two stories in one:  Micky’s story as the welterweight boxer who dreams of  the championship, and the story of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (spellbindingly played by Christian Bale),  who  could have been a champion but checked out of the competition because of  a fierce drug habit that none of his family can deal with.

Dicky’s story dominates during the first half of “The Fighter”.  Balding, skeletal, and nearly toothless, Dicky brags incessantly of his championship fighting, particularly against Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978, and dreams of a comeback while training Micky for upcoming fights in the bowels of the boxing league. Dicky’s self-deception is so profound — and so impervious to reality — that he fails to recognize who he really has become.  Christian Bale justifiably won the best supporting actor’s role for his scene-stealing performance.   The impeccable supporting cast includes Melissa Leo as the heartbreaking, shrewish mother and Amy Adams as Dicky’s feisty girlfriend.  Without Mark Wahlberg’s  understated acting, which  is the foundation for Christian Bale’s, the latter would have seemed over-the-top or  overreaching.

The story in the second half of the film now shifts to Micky’s ordeal as he slugs his way to the top, in spite of his dysfunctional family and his mother’s lack of interest in his success.  Melissa Leo plays the mother with a wickedness in which the unrecognized damage she has done to her younger son creeps into her face with horror and unflinching sorrow as she finally realizes what she has done to him (and to Dicky). It’s like viewing the scene of an accident.

“The Fighter” appeals to the viewer on several levels.  It is a boxing film, but doesn’t need to be.  It is a film that taps into the narcissistic archetypal mother whose impact on her children is grotesque.  And most of all, it is a story of choices we all face–some at the expense of those we love–in order to move on to another stage in life.  The everyman underdog’s desperation sometimes requires stripping delusions of what family can and cannot do for you. We can understand why both his mother and half-brother imprison Micky and why he can’t turn his back on his brother. “What passion doesn’t blind, it opens the eyes and mind.”  For Micky that isn’t possible until his girlfriend (played in an elusively simple way by the talented Amy Adams) reveals the true dynamics of his family.

The film is not without its shortcomings, but I think all boxing films are prey to these flaws, even while telling a story based on fact. For one, the scenes of the family clan that includes seven young sisters to Micky and Dicky, do not integrate well and sometimes verge on the melodramatic and unbelievable, truth or not.   Still, every scene between the two brothers is riveting and hints at the exculpatory. The love that they feel for each other, even when they realize its destructive nature, is palpable and desolate.  The not-so-simple lesson they both learn is that, even if you run away from your family, they are always with you.