I watched The Big Short about 12 hours after I watched Ex Machina. Ever in search of patterns, I looked within this time. Here was a film I enjoyed easily with only a few hiccups. Ex Machina left me exasperated as often as it had me hypnotized. And yet, if pressed to arbitrarily pick one (because hey, sometimes movie watching choices come down to that) I’d likely recommend Ex Machina over The Big Short, despite my numerous frustrations with the former. What gives?
Well, think of it this way: Ex Machina is a film of significant ambition that couldn’t quite figure put its pieces together perfectly. The whole assembly is a bit of a mess, but from certain angles it’s astonishing. The Big Short is much easier to appreciate at first. Its edges are sharp and its surfaces polished. But no particular angle makes me stop and gasp. It’s not particularly more than the sum of its parts either. Its aims are obvious, less starry-eyed than Ex Machina. It is an entertaining story of several men who predicted an impending economic collapse that just about no one else in the world saw coming. It delivers the goods, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
To be fair, in delivering those goods, director/writer Adam McKay and writer Charles Randolph have to work around some serious inside baseball. The Big Short is laden with financial jargon that made me appreciate how Moneyball must have read to people who knew as little about baseball as I do about investing. To explain some of the more important, inscrutable terms, the film regularly breaks the fourth wall. A string of celebrity cameos (including
Malin Akerman Margot Robbie in a bathtub, Anthony Bourdain preparing fish stew, and Selena Gomez playing blackjack) explain mortgage bonds and CDOs in layman’s terms. These moments are actually quite helpful, considering how much understanding at least the gist of the subprime mortgage crisis is necessary to follow the story. But the movie overplays this hand; characters regularly stop mid-scene to deliver monologues into the camera, often to let us in on details that could easily have been provided without interrupting the scene, or that add nothing to the narrative but a wink. It becomes repetitive to the point of monotony; moments like when a character admits that a scene that played out didn’t really happen are too clever by half. Breaking the fourth wall is best used as flavoring, not a course.
Still, The Big Short is far more energetic than not. It’s aided by a set of three lead performances that aim all over the comic spectrum and land on both feet. Christian Bale provides most of the movie’s pulse as Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager whose relentless attention to detail lets him see, as clearly as if he’s reading Cliff’s Notes, that the US housing market is doomed to collapse within two years. Burry is single-minded but not unfriendly; he spends days in his office working, reading every word of every detail he can find about the housing market He bets more than $1 billion shorting the housing market, making his clients apoplectic. When confronted, he presents his findings matter-of-factly; they aren’t debatable, he says. Housing will collapse. His boss looks at him like he’s speaking in tongues.
Elsewhere, Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s work and does some digging himself. Dollar signs in his eyes, he goes looking for business partners to short the housing market with; he’s laughed out of room after room, only finding a willing ear in hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell). Baum is in this profession for god knows what reasons; he despises the banks and seemingly anyone who makes any money from them. He’s open to Vennett primarily because he is so unsurprised that bankers would run a sure like housing unto the ground.
Ryan Gosling is one of the few actors who could make Vennett’s unapologetic profiteering work. His character isn’t likable, but he’s so open in his motives and gobsmacked at this opportunity that so few other can see in front of him that his attitude becomes, against our best instincts, infectious. It’s in addressing the morality of profiting off of a worldwide catastrophe that The Big Short gets a bit muddled. This isn’t a film that needs a moral center, but it would help to have a consistent viewpoint. Aside from Vennett’s zeal for profit, there’s Burry’s straightforward practicality (he’s simply doing his job, basically) and Baum’s crisis of conscience (he almost gives up at the end rather than make money off of the misfortune of others). There’s an entire separate plotline involving two twenty-something investors (played by John Magaro and Fill Wittrock) who also cash in on the meltdown, aided by a banker-turned-hippie Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). When they begin to celebrate, he chides them, spelling out statistically how many people will suffer as they’re raking in the money.The film’s coda is essentially a warning about how the banks are going to continue this cycle of pursuing profit at everyone’s expense. It’s a worthwhile message, but it doesn’t feel at one with the film that preceded it.
These characters aren’t the cause of the crisis, of course, but The Big Short seems less than eager to explore the moral conflicts it raises. It uses broad strokes (at one point Carrell literally says “this makes me no better than them” before reluctantly cashing in) or glib winks (when Gosling speaks to the camera one last time to rub in how happy he is with his success, regardless of what we think of him). In not engaging with its characters beyond their place as the pieces in an inherently interesting story, The Big Short limits its scope and narrative impact. I don’t blame McKay. He tells a fascinating tale with a lot of humor and energy. I learned a lot about a subject I might never have otherwise. The film does good work simply in educating a wide audience on a subject we all really ought to know about. This isn’t a frustrating film. But my frustrations with Ex Machina came from a place of love for what it did well and a desire to see more of that. The Big Short goes down easy, but it never compelled me to want more.
It’s 2016, but there are still several movies from last year that I need to wrap up. Oscar season, and the lack of compelling new films that accompanies it, makes this a great time to catch up.
Ex Machina has a great film hiding in its wings. You can see it, feel it in the extraordinary sets where the film takes place. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer, wins a contest to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive, wealthy CEO of the computing company Nathan works for. Nathan lives in a sprawling estate, buffered from any curiosity society might have for his work by many miles of forest, hills, and rivers. His home is a maze of windowless concrete hallways dressed with expensive widgets that do little to desterilize them. Writer/director Alex Garland makes the most of the Norwegian landscapes where the film’s outdoor scenes were shot. Indoors, he cultivates a perpetual sense of unease. There’s no way to feel safe in a place this alone. It’s a custom made playground for Nathan, whom Isaac plays with an edge of Tom Hanks in the second act of Cast Away (beard included): there are endless possibilities here, and with Nathan at the helm, all of them are perturbing.
Nathan wants Caleb to administer the Turing Test to an AI he is developing. The AI is not a computer, but an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Once a day for seven days, Caleb tests Ava’s intelligence by talking with her.
To this point, the story more or less telegraphs how it’s going to play out. It’s not hard to predict that Caleb will begin to fall for Ava, or that Ava feels imprisoned by the perpetually* strange Nathan.
*I was going to write “increasingly” but from the moment he appears on screen, Isaac is playing sinister arpeggios.
It’s not the plotting itself where Ex Machina began to frustrate me, but its focus. There isn’t much suspense about whether or not Ava is self-aware, that she has a consciousness and a personality. She is, for the purposes of the film, alive and desperate to escape. But rather than focus on Ava, and the development of her awareness, and on Nathan and his feverish desire to build a fully intelligent AI, the movie’s focus is squarely on Caleb.
Unfortunately, Domhnall Gleeson simply is not as interesting here as Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander. This is the third film I’ve seen Gleeson in this year, and I liked him in the other two. As Saoirse Ronan’s would-be suitor in Brooklyn he projects earnest passion that he lacks here. And as First Order General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens he dutifully gnawed the scenery to pieces and, well, that was good fun in a different type of movie. The short of it is, he’s not interesting here, his character’s arc isn’t all that interesting here, and he would have been better off as a supporting player to Isaac and Vikander.
Because what good performances those two give. Isaac is one of the most charismatic actors working today. He needs only seconds to project the full force of a character’s personality, and he can make the most expository dialogue sing with spontaneity. He doesn’t waste time letting Nathan transform from affable to sinister; there’s something off from the outset and he owns it.
Vikander’s performance was less obviously impressive to me at first. I thought Ava was operating on the same wavelength as Caleb, and it was a bit mundane. But her physical acting is always intriguing. The only part of Ava’s body with skin is her face; the rest is glass, mesh, and metal. Not knowing any androids, I have no basis to say that Vikander is a convincing one. But, well, she convinced me. And as Ava slowly reveals that she might have developed ulterior motives for growing closer to Caleb, Vikander’s performance gets increasingly interesting. Vikander is performing a virtuoso solo here with only a couple of notes to work with. By design, her personality is fairly static, but in showing multitudes she suggests the potential for even more. She gives the film a much needed dose of mystery.
But perhaps there’s too much mystery here in the writing. I wanted to see more of Ava, and more of Nathan and his descent into single-minded obsession. There’s a conversation about halfway through the film that’s revealing of the script’s weaknesses. Caleb and Nathan talk at length about Ava’s sexuality, how she is programmed to be able to have sex and enjoy it. The conversation is driven by the fact that Caleb is clearly attracted to Ava. This material could be interesting, but as presented here it comes off as not much more than a discussion of male fantasy. Ava’s view on the subject of her own sexuality is never even floated, never mind depicted. There are a lot of questions about android sexuality in this film’s world that could be thought-provoking, disturbing, and worth exploring in a story. A bolder script might have shown these characters grappling with them, and with the moral quandaries of developing AI as a result. They would have let Ava tell her own story, one she is clearly capable of telling. But those opportunities are shoved aside for an explanation of how Ava was designed to appeal to Caleb’s taste in porn.
The film does attempt to subvert the gender power balance at the end, in ways I won’t reveal. It’s satisfying in how it ties up loose narrative ends, but again, they were loose ends I was not particularly invested in. Caleb was never going to be the most interesting window into this world. I was desperate for this story to be sprung free from the constraints of its main device, for the plot to follow the characters the story wants to be about. Ex Machina has too much quality in it for me not to recommend. The style and atmosphere. The performances from Isaac and Vikander. But its narrative is stuck on shallow end of the pool. I wanted desperately to see it dive off the deep end, into the questions it raises, and into the world it presents at such frustrating arm’s length.
No matter how one tries, there are always more movies to see, an ever-growing backlog of classics that you haven’t gotten around to yet. I learned of one great way of tackling this list from Anna of Film Grimoire (please go follow her blog if you don’t already).
The idea is simple: at the start of the year, give yourself 12 films you will finally get to. Once a month, you watch and review a film on your list. I look forward to participating in it for the first time this year.
Without further ado, here are my Blindspot 2016 films: