Which Member of the Ensemble Were You?

Big Short movie posterThe Big Short (2016)
Dir: Adam McKay
Stars: Steve Carrell, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, John Magaro, Finn Whitrock, Adepero Oduye, Byron Mann, Marisa Tomei, Oscar Gale as “Tattooed Renter,” David Wyman as “Pub Goer #1″… and Brad Pitt

Let me just slap this link below in here right off the bat, so you can play along with me here….

The Big Short – IMDB Full Cast Link

I saw The Big Short last night on the big screen, and it is an absolute achievement in storytelling, ensemble performances that contribute to the whole, and hammering home your theme.

In this case, “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

The storytelling works because it begins and ends with that old adage in the midst of overwhelming challenge: you can laugh or cry.  Director Adam McKay and his ensemble cast decide to laugh at the mortgage crisis that crippled the world economy in 2008.  Don’t get me wrong – The Big Short shouldn’t have been nominated for Best Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes.  It is infinitely more Drama than Comedy, but its comedic breaks are its strength, fortifying us for the next montage of economic disaster that awaits.

Essentially, the film opens an imaginary book entitled, “Wall Street’s Most Confusing Terms and History” and just like that scene in Dead Poet’s Society, it encourages the audience to come along and rip out the pages.  As an example, in the first fifteen minutes of Short, the story demands that we be educated on some financial terminology because it’s going to be essential to the story.  Now, instead of going documentary with it, the production puts the gorgeous actress, Margot Robbie – herself! – in a bath tub, sipping champagne.  There are several similar cutaways and creative illustrations using a mixture of industry experts and celebrities to drive home the point – in more way than one.  After all, if we didn’t get it in real life, maybe we need it explained to us real slow-like?

Big Short - EnsembleAs for my listing of the cast above, I did that because The Big Short is a textbook example of “ensemble.”  All day today, I thought, “If I HAD to say, I guess I’d say it’s Steve Carrell’s story.”  He plays Mark Baum, who runs a hedge fund under the Morgan Stanley umbrella – and who lost a brother to suicide before we meet him.  Regardless, the film deserves a great deal of study and accolades for the fact that it juggles so many different characters and an absolute web of plotlines – and yet, we’re always entertained and enjoying the peaks of comedy and the valleys of despairing in the true history of the story.  The film educates  as it entertains us.

Let me elaborate on some of the names of actors you may not know from my laborious list above.  Believe me, they all contribute to the colossal ball of yarn that is, The Big Short.  And don’t worry, for these four there are another forty characters that will be fresh for you if you haven’t caught the film yet!

  • Vinnie Daniel, played by Jeremy Strong: Vinnie is one of Mark Baum (Carrell)’s partners at his fund, and he represents the voice of reason as they ride this incredible wave and try to understand the “bubble” staring them in the face.  The story needs Vinnie because it makes sense that eventually, someone asks “How are you trying to fuck us?”  Michael Burry, M.D. – played by Christian Bale – does this same thing, but much earlier in the story.
  • Adepero Oduye as Mark Baum’s contact at Morgan Stanely, Kathy Tao: I love how director McKay used Ms. Oduye’s character.  He peppers the story with her evolving relationship with Baum.  At first, they break each other’s chops, then she’s at his throat because he’s making these ridiculous financial investments, endangering her job… and ultimately, she’s without answers for him – just like we felt at the time.
  • David Wyman as “Pub Goer #1”: I know, this was one scene and pretty isolated, but I still love that this character and his lines were inserted into the story!  How many of us sat with an adult beverage during the collapse, yelling at the TV, “I don’t know how the hell all of this happened, but you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars – and I am mad as hell!”
  • Oscar Gale as “Tattooed Renter”: this character has only two scenes in the film, but man oh man what scenes they are… In the first, some guys he doesn’t know come banging on the door of the house he’s renting.  They are asking him where the owners are.  He’s terrified that they’re going to evict him for something the owners did – after all, as he says, “I pay my rent on time, man!”  And then, the gut wrenching scene at the end when he and his family appear homeless in a gas station parking lot.  What a way to hammer home the idea that millions of innocent Americans hit the bottom and never understood why, really.

Big Short hand raisedFinally, we have the ultimate achievement of picking a theme and using two hours of film to effectively hammer that theme home – and entertain us, the audience, in the process.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” is a very simple way to describe this movie’s theme.  After all, didn’t all the Wall Street firms think Christian Bale’s Dr. Burry was out of his mind when he pitched them on his investment idea? I mean, the guy looks like a surfer and listens to death metal all day – he can’t be right!  Didn’t we all believe MSNBC and Bloomberg and the Journal in the mid 2000s when they said the AAA credit ratings were in fact, AAA?  Did we believe Mark Baum when he raised his hand in that meeting – or were we still feeling like the Bear Sterns exec?

Big Short jenga

Perhaps the theme is a little deeper: maybe it’s a cautionary tale to not let history repeat itself.  To do something this time around.  Go out and vote, join Habitat for Humanity, give to a reputable charity – or ask for another opinion before making that investment.  Confirm the investment is a “go” with your spouse.  Put that “Jenga” piece in a more stury place than wobbling on top.  Director Adam McKay did a masterful job of subtly scolding us in his telling of the tale.  There are many points during the film with a super-quick montage of all the entertainment that was available at this point in the story.  I have to admit, as I watched this slide show of the Super Bowl and American Idol and golf outings and Disney vacations and latest car models.. I felt like I was a spoiled child.

Maybe you’ll feel that way and maybe you won’t!  For the record, I do not feel like it’s a bad thing that the director is challenging us.  And it serves me right!  When I saw the trailer last fall and saw that McKay was directing, I have to admit I rolled my eyes!  I was the one judging the book by its cover because I only knew him from Anchorman and his other comedies – how could THIS guy direct such a compelling, Michael Lewis authored story?  Well, he did – and so did his amazing ensemble.  Yep, serves me right.

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