Steve Carell

The Big Short

My primary motivation in going to the movies is entertainment; but every now and then you learn something. I typically avoid movies that cover mundane industries/topics with which I’m not familiar, but occasionally movies can be entertaining AND insightful. The Big Short chronicles the 2008 economic crisis that occurred after the housing market “bubble” burst and several financial institutions collapsed. I don’t understand the finer points of banking, investing, or real estate – but writer/director Adam McKay (The Other Guys, Step Brothers) crafted an immensely informative, funny, and entertaining docudrama that wasn’t as inaccessible as I initially thought.

There were only a handful of people who foresaw the housing crisis, a few “weirdos” and outsiders who knew what no one else did. Christian Bale (Exodus: Gods and Kings) stars as Dr. Michael Burry, an offbeat hedge fund manager who took a closer look at the housing market and discovered that the industry was being propped up by risky sub-prime mortgages made to undesirable prospective home buyers. He predicted that eventually these people would default on their mortgages and the industry would collapse with devastating repercussions. He then bet against the housing market, making the rounds to several financial institutions that were all too happy to take his money.

The film is narrated by Jared Venett (Ryan Gosling, Gangster Squad); a fast-talking Wall Streeter whose suspicions are aroused when he gets wind of what Burry is doing and wants in. A misdialed phone number leads him to Mark Baum (Steve Carell, Foxcatcher), an irascible hedge fund manager working under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley. He’s initially skeptical, but after independently researching the housing market himself, he follows Vennett’s lead and bets against the market as well. Dr. Burry predicts that it will take about 5 years for the bubble to burst, and his inkling is spot on. He’s so far ahead of the prevailing wisdom at the time that it nearly costs him his job – but he never falters in his conviction. Rounding out the prescient bunch are small-time investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro, Unbroken) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock, Noah), who stumble across Vennett’s inside scoop by happenstance.

The Big Short was a humorous, yet appropriately sobering depiction of the financial crisis. McKay deftly incorporated levity in his storytelling, making the nuanced material much more palatable to the audience. By using humor and splicing the film with actual pop culture moments from the time period, he made the subject matter accessible, breaking the “fourth wall” throughout the film. One of the highlights was his use of celebrity cameo appearances to explain particularly complex financial concepts. Actress Margot Robbie, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and singer Selena Gomez hilariously interjected timely explanations, effectively breaking up the underlying monotony.

In addition to a strong script and effective storytelling, the film was bolstered by brilliant performances – particularly from Steve Carell and Christian Bale. Carell’s range is incredible. The intonation of his voice was completely different, and I was extremely impressed. Between this and his work in 2014’s Foxcatcher, Carell is showing that his abilities far transcend the comedic realm. Bale was nearly as impressive, and the entire cast was superb. Unlike other films depicting the same events, The Big Short was uniquely refreshing in its pairing of humor with crisis. I never felt that McKay was making light of a tragedy, and it takes considerable skill to execute that technique. The Big Short took a mundane, confusing topic and made it lively and accessible, which was no small feat. It was definitely one of the better movies of 2015. Grade: A

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

Steve Carell has been pretty consistent with his comedic performances, save for 2010’s horrid Dinner for Schmucks.  He’s shown the ability to deliver laughs as well as heartfelt, dramatic performances, as found in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Dan in Real Life.  In his latest movie he joins Jim Carrey (Mr. Popper’s Penguins) and Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire) in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a silly flick about dueling magicians.

Carell is Burt Wonderstone, an egotistical Vegas magician who performs a running act alongside his best friend and fellow magician Anton Marvelton (Buscemi).  They resemble Siegfried and Roy, and it’s especially funny to see Buscemi out of his element in such a ridiculous part.  They are joined by their able assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde, In Time), a gifted magician in her own right.  Although he performs for hordes of adoring fans each night, Burt was not always so popular.  His childhood was miserable until he received a magic set for his birthday and found his passion through the love of magic.

Fast forward to the present day and there is a new kid on the block in Steve Gray (Carrey), a character that is best described as a cross between Chris Angeland David Blaine.  Gray is capturing the public’s attention through his magic tricks that more closely resemble publicity stunts.  Some of his “tricks” include holding his urine for over a week and not blinking for days at a time.  His antics are intentionally absurd, but it wasn’t too far removed from some of the ridiculous feats attempted by David Blaine.  Magic is an easy subject to lampoon, so the storyline was ripe for laughs.  For starters, all three magicians take their craft very seriously, approaching their performances with a laughable level of intensity.

When Anton and Burt have a falling out after a failed magic trick, Anton finally stands up for himself and quits.  Burt tries to maintain the show, but it fails miserably.  His boss at the casino (James Gandolfini, Killing Me Softly) gives him one last chance to recapture the old magic if he can best rival Gray and come up with an unbelievable magic trick to beat all others.  The remainder of the movie pits Burt and Gray against one another, with pretty funny results.  Jim Carrey’s humor isn’t for everyone, but I’ve always been a fan of his quirky brand of physical humor.  He reminded me of his old performances on In Living Color and I thought he played well off Steve Carell.  Olivia Wilde was a good sport in her role and ably complimented the more experienced funnymen.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was more ridiculous than funny, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The three lead actors didn’t take themselves too seriously, and that was the only requirement here.  It was not highbrow humor, but I enjoyed myself despite the silly premise.  Jim Carrey fans won’t be disappointed, although it won’t rank highly among his funnier solo efforts.  Similarly, Steve Carrell has also had smarter, funnier material to work with.  However, I can’t judge the movie too harshly.  It’s a movie about dueling magicians for goodness’ sake, what did you expect?

Grade: B

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.