Movie reviews: The Big Short, Our Brand is Crisis, Freeheld

The Big Short (15A) opens in 2005, when number-cruncher extraordinaire Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers the vast hole at the heart of the American economy. 

When news begins to filter out that Burry is betting against – or ‘shorting’ – the housing market, historically the central plank of the USA’s economic stability, hedge fund managers such as Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell) are initially sceptical. Soon, however, the wolves begin circling, and the economic meltdown of 2008 unfolds in all its grisly glory. 

Adapted from Michael Lewis’s book, and directed by Adam McKay, The Big Short offers a quirky take on the complex events that precipitated the great economic crash (McKay jazzes up the here-comes-the-science bits by having the more complicated issues explained by Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez). 

Fuelled by the bleakest of black humour, The Big Short offers no hero or even anti-hero to root for, but the film is nevertheless compelling as we watch a host of ravenous financial parasites feast on the rotting corpse of capitalism, the sight all the more appallingly riveting given that we know that this is a corpse with a spectacular line in resurrection. 

Bristling with indignation, and almost unbelievable given the mind-boggling scale of the disaster and the levels of fraud and stupidity at play at the highest levels of Wall Street, The Big Short is required viewing for anyone with an interest in how capitalism operates at the sharp end.

Sandra Bullock stars in Our Brand is Crisis (15A), playing ‘Calamity’ Jane Bodine, an American political strategist who once had a reputation for winning at all costs, but who has self-exiled herself after a damaging defeat. 

An opportunity for redemption is offered when Jane is drafted to help the ailing campaign of Bolivian oligarch Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), but the altitude sickness Jane experiences when she flies into La Paz is symptomatic of a more general condition caused by Jane’s cynical approach to manipulating the political process and democratic choice. 

Directed by David Gordon Green, and adapted by Peter Straughan from Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name, Our Brand is Crisis is a movie that never really commits to its satirical potential.

Sandra Bullock is as charming as ever in the lead role, and delivers the script’s comically subversive moments with panache, but the story can’t decide whether it’s an uplifting tale about the belated awakening of ‘Calamity’ Jane’s conscience or a hard-hitting account of the consequences of America’s dabbling in South American politics (Billy Bob Thornton, playing Jane’s long-time nemesis Pat Candy, offers hard-nosed realpolitik, although Thornton’s role is so small as to qualify as a series of cameos). 

The result is something of a mish-mash in which, for example, Jane’s bracing reduction of morality and idealism to the simple matter of winning and losing is undermined by throwaway gags that soften the impact of what her ‘attack ads’-style meddling might mean in terms of Bolivian lives. The message is undoubtedly a powerful one, but – in contrast to Jane’s own advice to the strongman Castillo – it is weakly delivered.

Based on historical events, Freeheld (12A) opens in New Jersey in 2002, when police detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) meets Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). 

The pair embark on a relationship, and set up home together, but Laurel is determined to keep her sexuality a secret, even from her trusted partner Dane Wells (Michael Shannon).

When Laurel is diagnosed with late-stage cancer, however, and local politicians decree that her pension cannot be transferred to Stacie on her death – as was the case with heterosexual married couples – Laurel begins a public campaign to force the lawmakers to deliver justice and equality to all. 

It’s a story that could very easily have degenerated into a didactic lecture, but Freeheld – directed by Peter Sollet, from Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay – is very much a character-driven piece, with Julianne Moore and Ellen Page turning in superb performances which subtly emphasise the emotional highs and lows of the couple’s tragedy without ever descending into sentimentality. 

They’re a study in how opposites attract: Laurel is a hardboiled cop, belying the Farrah Fawcett femininity of her outmoded hairstyle, while the younger Stacie is brash, boyish and emotionally vulnerable. Steve Carell, meanwhile, feasts on the scenery as the gay Jewish campaigner who hijacks Laurel’s illness for his own ends, and Michael Shannon is quietly impressive as Laurel’s stalwart partner. 

There are times, with the camerawork and direction rather flat, when it can feel like a TV Movie of the Week, but Page and Moore’s performances result in a hugely affecting account of an unusually bittersweet feel-good tale.

The Big Short *****

Our Brand is Crisis ***

Freeheld ***


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