Wall Street Bull

Adam McKay’s entertaining, broad cop comedy THE OTHER GUYS actually hinges on financial crimes involving the police pension fund, and unexpectedly ends with an animated credits sequence explaining stuff like Ponzi schemes and wealth inequality in America — it’s by some way the cleverest and most serious thing about the movie. The subject obviously fascinates the director, and having rather shoehorned it into that film, he centres THE BIG SHORT on those financial services dudes who saw the coming financial crisis and enriched themselves by betting against the housing market, previously thought to be the most stable of institutions.THE BIG SHORT is eager to have us understand the issues at stake — it has an uphill task with me, since I tend to go blurry whenever the stock market of high finance enter the picture. I can just about follow TRADING PLACES (“You guys are a couple of bookies!”) until the ending, at which point it becomes like one of those poker scenes in a western — I don’t understand the game, but I know something important is happening with money and somebody will win and somebody will lose. The documentary INSIDE JOB had set me up with some useful terminology, and it’s full of little mini-lectures that set out the key concepts in simple terms (“When you hear ‘sub-prime,’ think ‘shit.'”)Where INSIDE JOB can simply tell us stuff using talking heads, and encourages us to be interested by laying out the stakes, McKay knows that a drama has to convey its information through scenes of rising dramatic tension. He can break this rule with the mini-lectures by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain et al, by keeping things entertaining, but he has to give his actors meat. Fortunately, the real-life characters are adapted into appealing, extreme personality types (I don’t know how accurately, but Steve Carell, Christian Bale et al are interesting and convincing) and the script gives them plenty of funny, explosive scenes. This stuff is also dressed up with some creative fracturing of the fourth wall, which doesn’t stop us caring (Brecht was wrong) but does mix up the approach and keeps things snappy and surprising.

The cast includes Batman, Driver, Nebula, Gru, Spiderman’s Aunt May, Tyler Durden…The film’s choppy cutting style is also worthy of note. I didn’t exactly like it, but it’s worthy of note. Many of the conversations are shot in a fragmented, zoom-happy mockumentary manner, using the reframings and adjustments you’re normally supposed to leave out (Hill St. Blues seems to have originated this approach for its morning briefing scenes) and the edits are also often abrupt, premature, cutting out of a scene before it a gesture or word has been completed. The earliest example of THAT which I can think of is HAROLD AND MAUDE, where a traumatic moment is cut short before Harold can quite finish the word “WHAAA-” That movie does it once — this one seems to do it constantly. It’s enervating, which is sort of effective, and it’s an innovation, but it’s one I rather hope doesn’t catch on. It could potentially take the joy out of editing the way the BOURNE series takes the joy out of cinematography.

There are also some photomontages. These are surprisingly poor. Is this a lost art? Or did the film not have enough money to get enough good stills? I think it’s a lack of editing skill, maybe. Like, the ugly cutting of the staged scenes is definitely deliberate, is going for ungainliness as an effect. But I can’t see any advantage to the clumsiness of the photomontage.

But in a way this is all just window-dressing — perhaps necessary stuff to help tell this complicated and technical story — there are multiple narratives, each with its own protagonist, all of which explore the abstruse world of financial services — but the film thrives on its multiple scenes of dramatic confrontation, unfolding like a detective story garnished with bizarre human comedy, and powered by sorrow and anger which it transmits with skill. The methods used, ultimately, may not matter, so long as they provide clear context for the Big Scenes.


2 Responses to “Wall Street Bull”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Another near-documentary: “Other People’s Money”, a stage play that neatly followed the hostile takeover and dismantling of a prosperous company that was worth even more as scrap.

    Never saw the movie, but the play made the corporate raider a likable rough diamond, able to make a fairly strong case for the morality of maximizing shareholder profit. A simpler version of Shaw’s Lord Undershaft, without Undershaft’s credo of paychecks doing more good than religion.

  2. I should check it out. Margin Call is arguably limited by not being able to imagine a justification for any of its traders: they all seem to be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

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