The curious case of ‘The Big Short’s’ Oscar chances

Steve Carell could be a player...but the movie?
SteveCarell and Ryan Gosling in 'The Big Short'

Normally, this would be a point where I’d sit down and review Adam McKay’s new drama “The Big Short,” but with other deadlines tomorrow I’m just going to take a few minutes to give a slight overview and discuss its awards season prospects.

Based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the housing and mortgage bubble in the mid to late 2000’s, McKay’s take centers on three key entities: Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and his investment group Scion Capital; Mark Baum(Steve Carell), Steve Eisman in real life , and his New York based investment group; as well as young hedge fund managers Jamie Shipley (Finn Whitrock), Charlie Geller (John Marago) and their mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling ), better known as Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann, is a pseudo narrator who made a massive deal with Baum and they have a contemptuous relationship as the film plays out. Basically, the picture is a mix of real and composite characters and that only becomes problematic when you start looking into the real story the movie is based on once you leave the theater.

McKay tells this story through an almost endless parade of exposition. It’s one scene after another of a character explaining this, that or the other as though it’s a story you’d hear on the street or at a business meeting. Many characters break the fourth wall (although it works better here than it did recently in “The Walk”) and in three key scenarios refer to real celebrities – playing themselves – to explain key banking and investment terminology. The first one, Margot Robbie, gets a good laugh, but you still are left confused about what CBO’s (collateralized debt obligation’s) are. The cutaways to Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez are much more successful. Still, by the time the movie ends it’s still confusing just what happened to cause the crisis and how these characters made billions of dollars on the collapse (and should you be happy they profited on the expense of innocents?).

When the film is captivating it’s because of the charismatic performances of its stars, some well-written comedic moments or McKay’s sometimes creative use of mixed media editing (think Oliver Stone circa “J.F.K.” but more lighthearted). Unfortunately, there are simply too many scenes where characters talk to each other like they are in a reenactment of a “60 Minutes” interview. And when the film tries to pull for the heartstrings at the end you sort of don’t believe it. That’s what makes it hard to believe it’s really a Best Picture player (not to mention the aforementioned confusion on what really occurred on the financial side).

No doubt, some guild and Academy members will enjoy its critical takedown of the banking sector and its reminder that not much has changed since the 2008 economic crisis. There is also a very bro-like energy to the film that will appeal to some (although we’re guessing the thought of that probably makes McKay cringe).   It’s a very male-skewing movie in more ways than one (the female characters are beyond secondary) and you cannot argue there is an element of the Academy that falls for those types of films.

Where “Big Short” probably has it’s best chance for any real Oscar attention is with Carell’s performance. Nominated last year for “Foxcatcher,” Carell gives his investor with a conscience a simmering anger while still playing for laughs. Contrary to what some believe, Best Actor is very competitive this season. However, if Carell is willing to put the legwork in again he’s got a shot at cracking the top five again.

They standout Supporting Actor performances are from Bale and Gosling, but both are probably on the outside looking in on the toughest category to crack this year. It should be noted Pitt, Wittrock, Marago, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong are all excellent which will help with SAG (more on that in a minute). Marisa Tomei is basically wasted as Baum’s wife and Melissa Leo and Karen Gillian effectively are just in one scene each.

Adapted Screenplay and Editing seem like reaches (it doesn’t help the movie does feel like it could use another month or so in the editing room to tighten things up) and, trust, Cinematography, Production Design and Costumes are fair at best.

Outside of the Oscar bubble “Big Short” has a chance to earn a Best Ensemble nomination from the SAG Awards and both Carell and the movie are likely locks to get nominated in there respective Golden Globe comedy categories.

But a Best Picture player?  We’re skeptical at the moment, but maybe the market will surprise us and turnaround.

“The Big Short” opens in limited release on Dec. 11 and nationwide on Dec. 25.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.
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