Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone are masters of the music video parody, and their SNL shorts “D*** in a Box,” “Jack Sparrow,” and “I’m on a Boat,” all featuring genuine music stars, followed the first true viral video, the classic “Lazy Sunday.” They are gifted at composing catchy hooks, writing silly lyrics, and nailing the music and look of genres from rap to pop to R&B. With appealing targets and a three-minute running time, they did very well. Now they’ve produced, written, and starred in a feature length parody of music documentaries with “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping.” So, instead of comparing them to the performers they take on with their video shorts, they are going up against films like “This is Spinal Tap” and “Walk Hard,” both of which managed the daunting challenge of being more over-the-top than the acts they were parodying. “Popstar” is pleasant enough, but does not quite meet that challenge, getting most of its energy and most of its laughs from an endless parade of celebrity cameos, mostly winking at the audience.
Samberg plays Conner, once part of a popular band called Style Boyz with his childhood friends Owen (Taccone) and Lawrence (Schaffer), and now a hugely successful solo performer known as Conner4Real. Owen is now reduced to serving as DJ. Taccone provides the film’s rare subtle charms, making Owen so endearing he deserves his own movie. On stage, he sits behind an impressive high-tech set-up, but as he explains in one of the film’s comic high points, everything is set up on his iPod, which also has room for the audio books he listens to on the road. He makes the best of his relegation to the sidelines, even when Conner decides that he should have to wear a huge, heavy electro helmet/mask that shoots a zillion-watt light beam out of the top, so powerful it could probably disrupt the navigation system of the space station.
Lawrence is furious with Conner for stealing the credit he felt he deserved for one of his biggest hits. He has retreated to a farm in Colorado, where he makes terrible wood carvings and broods about the unfairness of it all. That hit, by the way, in a shrewd jab at the recording industry and its fans, turns out to be a brief rap segment in a song by a superstar (a blink-and-you’ll-miss her Emma Stone). Connor tells us that most rap artists do catchphrases, but his innovation (actually Lawrence’s) was to do a lot of catchphrases.
Conner is, of course, dating a starlet (Imogen Poots) and decides to distract the press from the terrible reviews of his new album by proposing to her in a stunt that goes terribly wrong. When ticket sales for his tour lag, he brings on an opening act, an up-and-coming rapper (Chris Redd) who “All About Eve”-style begins as a fan and then starts to take over the show.
The trio gets able support from SNL veterans Tim Meadows, Maya Rudolph, and Joan Cusack, and there are some funny cutaways to a TMZ-style sleazy “news” organization, but at a brisk under-90 minute running time no one is on screen for very long. The musical numbers are hilarious and the film is never mean-spirited about its characters or the real-life celebrities it is parodying. And by the time you figure out a joke isn’t working, two more have gone by, the pace itself enough things bouncing along. It tries so hard to entertain you, it would be hard-hearted not to give in.
Parents should know that this film includes very explicit nudity, very strong and crude language, sexual references, some comic violence, drinking, and drugs.
Family discussion: What celebrities does this remind you of? Why did Conner decide he wanted someone to be honest with him?
If you like this, try: “This is Spinal Tap,” “Walk Hard,” “Gentle and Soft” (the brilliant Bill Hader/Fred Armison mockumentary about a 70’s soft rock duo) and the Lonely Island videos
The Coen brothers love old movies, and not just the classics. I remember reading an interview where they discussed their affection for “With Six You Get Eggroll,” which even Doris Day’s most fervent fans do not consider one of her best. With “Hail, Caesar!” they pay loving tribute to the final years of the golden era of the Hollywood studios, in part because it gives them a chance to tell a story about change, and choice, responsibility and irresponsibility, and in part because it gives them a chance to play studio heads themselves, overseeing not just one movie but five. And as Orson Welles said, that’s “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.”
There really was an Eddie Mannix, the MGM executive who had various titles but who was pretty much a full-time fixer. Whether it was a starlet’s nude photos or a male star’s casting couch encounter with a male director, his job was to keep it out of the courts and especially out of the gossip columns and scandal magazines with names like “Confidential.” This was accomplished with bribes, intimidation, and trading of favors. A reputation would be saved by giving the reporter exclusive access or even a juicy story about a lesser star who could be sacrificed to save the day for someone the studio considered a major asset.
The Eddie Mannix played by Josh Brolin works at a studio called Capitol Pictures, but the issue of capital will arise as well. Eddie is under so much stress he goes to confession every day. He is responsible for keeping the entire studio running smoothly, and that begins before dawn, where he extracts an actress from a compromising situation (paying off the cops), and continues on the studio lot. There he assigns an amiable singing cowboy star named Hobie Doyle (a winning Alden Ehrenreich) to put on a dinner jacket and take over the lead in a high-prestige drawing room drama, even though he’s “a dust guy” and his dialog in previous films was pretty much limited to whistling for his horse, Whitey, and “Hold on, there, partner.” Cleaning him up and putting him in a dinner jacket is not a problem, but the intricate drama he is thrown into requires tricky lines like “Would that t’were so simple,” preceded by a mirthless laugh.
Mannix visits the set of a big-budget musical and sees a water ballet out of Busby Berkeley’s wildest dreams. But the star is pregnant but not married (a career-killer in those days). She’s played by Scarlett Johansson with enough wit and brio to power the massive flume of water that lifts her mermaid character up into the sky.
The biggest studio production is the epic “Hail, Caesar,” about a Roman centurion who becomes a follower of Jesus (oddly similar to the upcoming “Risen”). It stars the studio’s most valuable actor, with the manly name of Baird Whitlock (a wickedly funny George Clooney). Mannix thinks his biggest problem is going to be making sure that the movie does not offend anyone in the audience, and in a hilarious scene, he consults with a focus group of clergy, or tries to. But then a real problem arises. Baird Whitlock is kidnapped and being held for ransom by a group that calls itself “The Future.” They are a group led by the most improbable of 20th century scholars, accurately quoted if not accurately portrayed, and supported by…well, no more spoilers here.
It’s flat-out funny, whether you know the history or not, and I left wishing for a quadruple feature that would include all of the films we see in production (well, maybe not the other “Hail, Caesar”). What keeps it buoyant, even effervescent, is the pure affection for films and filmmaking in every one of what in the pre-digital days we used to call frames. (We see them up close and personal in a hilarious scene with Frances McDormand as an old-school film editor.) The movie touches lightly on issues of story-telling and the inherent chaos and frustration of trying to balance art and commerce, plus the skills and needs of a large group of people. But the love story here is between Mannix, as a stand-in for the writer/directors, and the movies.
Parents should know that this film includes kidnapping, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and paternity issues, some sexual references, drinking and references to alcoholism, and smoking.
Family discussion: Which real-life characters inspired this movie? Should Eddie take the job offer?
If you like this, try: some of the movies that inspired this one like “Million Dollar Mermaid,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “My Pal Trigger,” and “The Robe”
Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity
Constant very strong and crude language
Fraud, corruption, economic upheavals
Date Released to Theaters:
December 11, 2015
Date Released to DVD:
March 15, 2016
Director Adam McKay is so obsessed with the 2008 financial meltdown that he inserted a series of charts and graphs and statistics about it over the closing credits of the silly buddy-cop comedy, The Other Guys. Yes, there was a villain played by Steve Coogan who was up to some financial jiggery pokery, but only the most careful viewers of that film could have deduced that what McKay, best known for raunchy Will Ferrell slob comedies, secretly yearned for, as Michael Caine might say, was to blow the bloody doors off the Wall Street bankers who treated the American economy like a bull treats a china shop.
We’ve had sober documentaries like The Flaw and Oscar-winner Inside Job and the superb drama Margin Call, all outstanding, insightful, and illuminating and essential companion pieces to this movie. But “The Big Short” has several advantages in telling the story. First, by giving us someone to root for, however imperfect the heroes of this story are, it keeps us emotionally connected to the story. Second, because it is in most respects a comedy, McKay has a wider range of tricks on hand to make us understand what happened. This fierce, fiery rant of a film is going to make you understand that the people we entrusted with our economic stability were truly despicable and truly stupid. It is funny and infuriating and then funny again and then, when he tells you that the bad guys went to jail and the big banks were broken up — no, just kidding, they weren’t — it is monumentally infuriating.
I’ll add a footnote below to give my own very short explanation of what happened.* (And one thing they got wrong.** Pretty much everything else is literally right on the money.) Or, you could listen to Margot Robbie talk you through it, as she sips champagne in a bubble bath. Yes, McKay knows what gets people’s attention and he uses Robbie and other celebrities to come in and explain the parts that the bankers intentionally did their best to obfuscate, using words guaranteed to put everyone to sleep so they could pick our pockets a little while longer. Ryan Gosling also serves as a guide, playing a real-life insider who saw that the mortgage-backed securities were going to tumble down like a Jenga tower.
The real-life acronym used by the bankers during this period was IBGYBG, which stood for “I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone,” meaning that if they could just keep passing the hot potato of economic Armageddon going around the circle a couple more times to collect the fees, they could get out before it all came tumbling down. And many of them did. As Michael Lewis notes in the the book that inspired this film (subtitled The Doomsday Machine), and, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this: the heroes of his book, the small group that bet against the bankers, made fortunes. But so did the people who lost that bet. Everyone on both sides of these deals made a lot of money. Everyone else across the country lost a lot of money, jobs, and homes.
As noted, Lewis’ book and McKay’s movie (the Oscar-winning script is co-written with Charles Randolph of the underrated “Love and Other Drugs”) wisely allow us to enter the story via the scrappy little group of misfit toys who figure out that the game is cooked, that it can’t stay that way, and that there has to be a way to bet against the other side. This grown-up Bad News Bears bunch (two of them barely qualifying as grown-ups) have a couple of things going for them. First, they are skeptics. Actually, they are cynics. They assume everyone is lying to them and just about everyone is cheating them. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who insists on being called Dr. Michael Burry (he’s a neurologist-turned investment manager) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell) are both men who were already inclined to be skeptics and then faced terrible pain and loss that disabused them of the sense that life was fair. Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), two young partners literally running an investment firm out of a garage, had made almost $30 million finding unseen risks but were so naive about Wall Street that they did not know what the requirements were for being able to trade as an institution and not as an individual. These guys were all outsiders. (All names are fictional except for Burry.)
The second thing they had going for them was that they were not just willing to do their homework; they insisted on it. While the money gusher was going, no one else wanted to check the math (and no one was getting paid to do so). But, in some of the most entertaining moments of this riotously entertaining film, these guys who did not believe what they were told, went to check it out. Burry unpacked the securities to examine each of the hundreds of mortgages they contained to see if they were as secure as promised. They were not. Baum’s colleagues (Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater) went to Florida to see the homes that were mortgaged. They were abandoned. Baum’s guys spoke to the mortgage brokers who happily explained that they preferred to give mortgages to people who had no possible means of paying them. (Max Greenfield is superbly sleazy in this role.) “They’re not confessing,” one of Baum’s partners says in amazement. “They’re bragging.”
By the time a stripper explains to Baum that she has mortgages on five houses and a condo and has been assured she can refinance when her adjustable rate jumps up, he begins to see the potential in betting that these securities will fall as people like this cannot pay the mortgages. When he goes to a convention of financial types working in this field (Byron Mann is almost deliciously corrupt as the arrogant and ethically vacant Mr. Chau), he knows he is right.
At the same convention, Shipley and Geller are jubilant when they are able to make a big bet against the bankers. And then they get a reality reminder from their their mentor, played by co-producer Brad Pitt. He could not take the corruption of Wall Street any more and left for a life somewhere between disaster prepper and artisanal farmer, wearing a face mask when he goes to town and urging everyone to get colonics. He met the young investor when they were walking their dogs. He reminds Shipley and Geller not to be so happy. When they win big, it will be because the economy is collapsing, causing real, devastating pain.
This is an outstanding film, with sensational performances by a brilliant ensemble cast. It is one of the best of the year and the most important as well.
Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, vulgar sexual references, strippers, nudity, and extreme widespread fraud and corruption.
Family discussion: What made just these men able to see what so many other people did not? How did they verify their analysis? Will it happen again?
If you like this, try: the book by Michael Lewis and documentaries about the financial meltdown including “The Flaw” and “Inside Job” as well as feature films “99 Homes” and “Margin Call”
*Here’s what happened, without the jargon or the bubble bath. As you see at the beginning of the movie, Lewis Ranieri, now one of the wealthiest people in the world, came up with the idea of essentially crowd-funding mortgages. He took lots and lots of mortgages, bundled them into bonds, and let big institutional investors, like pension funds, buy them. It was a great investment for them because pension funds need a safe and secure source of income to pay retirees and these were safe and secure — much more than stocks — because people almost never defaulted on their mortgages and because so many mortgages were bundled up together that even if some did default it would have almost no impact. These bundles of mortgages were so popular that the banks ran out of safe and secure mortgages to put into bonds. And so, they started pushing mortgage brokers to issue more mortgages, and that meant giving mortgages to people who would not otherwise have qualified. (Some people will tell you that the government was at fault for pushing home ownership on people who could not afford it. They are wrong. Most of the pressure was coming from people who wanted to buy mortgages, not people who wanted to buy houses.) So, the formerly safe and secure bonds started filling up with less and less safe and secure mortgages. And the people responsible for differentiating the risk of the bonds, including the rating agencies, decided to just keep rating and selling the new, less secure securities as though they were exactly the same as the earlier ones. All of the “formulas” (sometimes called “algorithms” or “models”) used to justify this were bunk. Imagine it this way: there’s a vineyard that makes superior wine that everyone wants to buy and there are strong legal and economic incentives to buy it. But you only have so many grapes, so you start watering it down, still selling it at the same price, and getting the people who rate wine to continue to give it the same rating. Then you run out of water so you start blending it with turpentine, and all of your projections show that it is just as good and will still sell just as well so you price it that way and assume there is no risk.
Here’s the important part: everyone at every part of this conveyer belt of increasingly risky securities all being treated as though they were not risky was being paid based on the number of transactions, not the quality of the transactions, a sort of very big, very expensive game of tag, where there was never any “it” until finally “it” was everyone.
There’s a lot of noise in “Mortdecai” but what I remember most is the silences where everything pauses for a moment to allow the audience to laugh without drowning out the next witty riposte. Nope, just crickets, as there was no laughter, just grim resolve on the part of those of us professionally obligated to stick it out through the bitter end.
“Mortdecai” is based on series of 1970’s comic novels by Kyril Bonfignioli about an art dealer with connections to the upper class and the criminal underground, which provide him with many opportunities for mischief. I’m sure they are all high-spirited and merry and racy and fun, but by the evidence of this film they are also dated, overly precious, and not susceptible to translation into film. Perhaps it was possible decades ago and in print rather than on screen to find it funny when someone is repeatedly shot and injured, often accidentally by his employer, or when someone else is shot and killed. But not now and not like this.
Maybe gag reflexes brought on by Mortdecai’s mustache and widespread barfing brought on by tampering with a sumptuous buffet can be funny when left to the imagination. Not likely, but clever writing might just make it possible as our imaginations are very good at filtering descriptions according to our comfort levels. It’s another thing entirely when it is unavoidably seen and heard. Cue the crickets.
Over the past few years, with the exception of a brief appearance in “Into the Woods” Johnny Depp has made one catastrophically bad movie after another. As proof of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, the success of his offbeat, fey Captain Jack Sparrow, initially objected to by the studio execs who were very unhappy with the early footage, has given Depp license to go way over the top with quirks and twitches in films like “The Lone Ranger” and “Tusk.” As I noted in my review, in “Transcendence” his performance was so robotic when he was playing a human that it hardly made a difference when he turned into a computer. Here, as the title character, a caricature of a pukka sahib colonial twit/Brit, embodies the fatal combination of profound unpleasantness with the expectation of being seen as irresistibly adorable not just by the other characters but by the audience.
Paul Bettany provides the film’s only bright moments as Jock Strapp, Mordecai’s Swiss army knife of a sidekick, as adept at ironing his lordship’s handkerchiefs as he is at hand-to-hand combat, getaway car driving, anticipating that Lady Mortdecai (Gwyneth Paltrow, looking like the cover of Town and Country in very fetching riding gear) will want the guest room made up for her husband as soon as she sees his new mustache, and bedding many, many, many ladies. Ewan McGregor does his valiant best but is wasted as the Oxbridge-educated MI5 official (and former classmate of Mortdecai, with a crush on Lady M). Director David Koepp, whose “Premium Rush” was a nifty little thriller with unexpected freshness and wit, has stumbled here with a film that is badly conceived in every way, like its title character imagining itself as clever and endearing when in reality it is dull and repellent.
Parents should know that this movie includes strong and crude language, drinking and comic drunkenness, sexual references and situations, some crude, bodily function humor, comic peril and violence including guns, with characters injured and killed.
Family discussion: What was the best way to resolve the issue of the mustache? Who should have the Goya painting?