Why do good people do bad things? Why do people who consider themselves decent and honest take jobs which involve cheating other decent and honest people? It’s not on anyone’s lifetime top movie list, but I’ve never heard the answer expressed as succinctly as it is in “Regarding Henry,” in which Harrison Ford plays a cut-throat lawyer who winds up becoming a better person after accidentally sustaining brain damage.
Harrison Ford’s lawyer character, earnestly: “What we did is wrong.”
Harrison’s colleague, matter-of-factly: “What we did is paying for our lunch.”
You can sum up a universal truth like that in a low-key way, or you can make an entire movie about the lack of morality in the business world, which is what happens in “The Big Short.” The movie uses pretty much all the techniques in movies like “Boiler Room,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” to hold the viewer’s interest in what would otherwise be a lot of mostly white men disagreeing with each other for two hours. These include rap music (though the theme to “Phantom of the Opera” is also snuck in); jump cuts, scantily clothed women (including Margot Robbie as herself in a hot tub), scenes set in places like nightclubs and casinos which naturally hype up the energy a notch; and breaking the fourth wall. The characters in “The Big Short,” are supposed to be outsiders to the financial industry, but there doesn’t seem to much of a character arc for most of them; first they’re all gung ho about making money, and later when it’s time, they get a little less gung-ho. “I’m going to seek moral redemption,” one character claims at one point, but I was never sure if he was being ironic or not. This is the kind of movie where someone responds to being called a big piece of shit by beaming – without irony.
In the movie, Christian Bale plays a glass-eyed, quasi-autistic doctor genius who correctly predicts that the housing market is going to collapse pre-2008. He’s definitely won the jackpot when it comes to quirky roles, and the other characters have to work twice as hard to make an impression next to him. When I was watching, I kept having deja-vu, finally it struck me that Bale is playing both the Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman roles in “Rain Man,” at once. Sometimes he’s stomping around demanding money to invest; other times he’s screwing up his face, rocking out to his Ipod and playing air drums. Other characters, such as Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt (disguised under heavy facial hair), and Steve Carell, who gets to play a character with moral qualms from the beginning, but who mostly just conveys this by furrowing his brown and frowning a lot. (Carell is an excellent actor, but here, he struck me as a little lost.) The movie knows that the average movie-goer probably can’t or has no inclination to follow complex financial analysis, so the characters explain things in a way anyone can understand, by comparing things to fish, poker, toy buildings or poop. Example: “The CDO is cat shit wrapped in dog shit.” If “The Wolf of Wall Street,” holds the record for using the most f-words, this movie might also set a record for using the word “shit.”
“The Big Short,” reminded me of another Oscar-nominated/winning movie “Spotlight,” as it’s about mostly white guys crusading for the truth. “Spotlight” has a scene where Mark Ruffalo’s reporter bursts into the newsroom and demands that they run a story identifying pedophile priests, and there’s a similar one where Steve Carell points out that the people in the financial world knew full well the taxpayers would have to bail them out, but they didn’t care. Like “Spotlight,” there’s also a grim postscript which tells the viewer what happened (although of course, this is public knowledge already), which is that almost no one got punished for their sins. The perpetrators are still at it, and Bale’s real life character got audited (four times) when he tried to speak out. Such is life, but then people do have to pay for their lunch.