Right now is a good time to take a capitalist to the movies. Most especially to see The Big Short, Adam McKay's rocking adaptation of Michael Lewis' nonfiction bestseller about the 2008 economic meltdown, in which Wall Street shysters vaporized some $5-trillion in savings and real-estate value, and left millions of Americans jobless and without homes. This is a story that can only leave you angry and disgusted—how could government overseers fail in their duty to stop such blatant fraud? But McKay, best known for directing Will Ferrell comedies like Talladega Nights and the Anchorman films, approaches the material with great satirical flair, and his charisma-heavy cast navigates its moral ambiguities with graceful precision. The picture leaves you feeling jazzed and happy… and yet still angry and disgusted.
The movie begins in 2005, at the height of a U.S. real-estate boom. The mortgage industry is luring low-income citizens to sign up for deluxe properties they can in no way afford—the lure being dubious low-interest mortgages designed to blow up in their faces. The big Wall Street investment banks—Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, all those outfits—have packaged these dodgy mortgages into bonds of such inscrutable complexity that no one knows, or cares to know, exactly what's in them. The market credit-rating companies—Moody's, Standard & Poor's—are reliant on the banks for the fat fees that keep them in business, and they go along with the scam. Worse yet, the watchdog Securities and Exchange Commission can't be bothered to care. The money rolls in.
In California, an obsessive, one-eyed hedge-fund manager named Michael Burry (a magnetic Christian Bale) starts digging deep into these bonds and soon realizes that they're actually worthless. On behalf of his clients, he decides to short the market—to bet against the bonds by amassing credit-default insurance that will pay off richly when the bonds (and the U.S. economy, as it later turns out) collapse.
Back in New York, Burry's bold strategy comes to the attention of a Wall Street bond slickster named Jared Vennett (an awesomely smarmy Ryan Gosling). Vennett in turn brings it to the attention of hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who has serious anger-management issues and is outraged that the shady financial establishment is once again preying on ordinary Americans. Baum starts shorting the market, too.
At the same time, two neophyte Colorado fund managers named Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Witrock) come to New York to get in on the action, and they have a secret weapon—Ben Rickert (laid-way-back Brad Pitt), a Boulder neighbor and onetime bond trader who quit the business in disgust. They, too, begin to bet against the dodgy bonds.
All of these characters are fully drawn, rich with foibles and failings, and the actors have a ball playing them. Bale's Michael Burry, in his baggy shorts and bare feet, is isolated by Asperger's syndrome; he holes up in his office blasting Metallica and communicating with the outside world only by email. And Carell's Mark Baum, tormented by his knowledge of what's really going on, can't stifle his disdain for the bond-market creeps he's forced to consort with. (His faceoff with one especially repellent bond trader, played by Byron Mann, is a master class in smoldering contempt.)
It's a considerable achievement that the movie is able to keep us engrossed in a story filled with bond-trade babble—CMOs, CDOs, credit default swaps. Co-writers McKay and Charles Randolph anticipate our confusion and at one point give Vennett a voiceover in which he says of all this insider terminology, "Does it make you feel bored, or stupid? Well, it's supposed to." And when one or another arcane concept simply has to be explained, McKay, in a clever move, brings in random celebrities—Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez, Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath) —to help out.
There's a dark moral tide running beneath all the laughs, of course. The men we see blowing the whistle on Wall Street by shorting the bonds are also making billions—billions! —of dollars by doing so. The human wreckage they begin to see piling up is partly their doing. On the other hand, if they hadn't acted, might the catastrophe, going on longer, have been worse? Baum is torn: "Average people are gonna be the ones who'll have to pay for all this," he says. "They always do." How right he is.
David O. Russell's Joy is a rare Hollywood offering—a snark-free celebration of entrepreneurial capitalism. Regrouping his Silver Linings Playbook stars Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro, Russell—who rewrote Annie Mumolo's original script – tells the more-or-less true story of Joy Mangano, the struggling Long Island homemaker who invented the Miracle Mop and became a multi-millionaire.
Lawrence's Joy is a woman who's losing her mind tending a needy household that includes her two kids, her TV-addicted mother (Virginia Madsen), her salsa-singing ex-husband (Édgar Ramirez) and disapproving father (De Niro) —the latter two currently bunking together in her basement. Joy is a born inventor who put her dreams on hold after she invented a glow-in-the-dark dog collar as a teen and then watched a big pet-care company hijack it after she failed to patent the thing. Now here she is, with no money, no marriage, buried in housework.
Then one day she drops a glass of wine. Kneeling down to soak up the mess, she cuts her hands—and suddenly has an idea: a new kind of super-absorbent mop that can be squeezed dry mechanically. She constructs one of these herself and sets off to demonstrate it in a Kmart parking lot. But passersby keep passing by—no one cares.
The movie is narratively unbalanced: there are too many childhood flashbacks and fantasy soap-opera scenes (Joy's mom is really into the soaps), and a little too much in the way of family dynamics (there's also a bitterly jealous sister, played by a steely Elisabeth Röhm). Eventually, though, Joy connects with a man named Neil (Cooper), who runs a new kind of cable channel called QVC ("Quality, Value, Convenience"), which is dedicated to marketing all kinds of gadgets and fashions directly to home shoppers. Neill agrees to give Joy's mop a shot, and tells her to produce 50,000 of them. Joy borrows money from her dad's wealthy girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) and takes out a second mortgage on her house to do so. But the QVC staffer chosen to demonstrate the mop on-air screws up—no one calls in to place an order.
Joy is bereft. But after an interlude of darkest heartbreak, she marches back to Neill and demands to be allowed to demonstrate the mop on-air herself. She turns out to be a natural, and in the space of 20 minutes 18,000 orders pour in through the studio switchboard.
This is a movie of moments. Lawrence exerts flawless control in a scene in which Joy takes on a sinister money man and beats him down without even raising her voice. The standout scene, though—and reason enough to see the movie—has Neil showing Joy around the QVC studio and explaining the channel's game-changing marketing approach. It's all about the hands, he tells her—the camera doesn't focus on the hosts' faces, but on their hands as they glide around the products in hypnotic rites of presentation. Neill's face seems to be lit up from within (Cooper's familiar warmth is at full radiance). He has a trail-blazer's fervor, and Joy slowly catches the glow. It's a transporting moment. You might call it capitalist poetry.