On Movies: Adam McKay's 'The Big Short': Economics for the people

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Director Adam McKay attends "The Big Short" New York premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on November 23, 2015 in New York City.

What do the knucklehead hits Step Brothers, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and those two Anchorman pics have in common?

All directed and co-written by Adam McKay.

And what does The Big Short - a prestige year-end release, based on the nonfiction prize-winning book by Michael Lewis about the housing and credit bubble that triggered the Great Recession - have to do with any of that?

McKay, written and directed by.

"Look at me on paper and you see the guy who did Step Brothers, and this doesn't seem like a logical next project," McKay says. "But I've always been politically involved, and when I read Michael Lewis' book, that was the moment when I realized, 'Oh, 70 percent of politics is economics!' "

McKay, back in his hometown recently (he went to Great Valley High and Temple and worked as an usher at the Ritz), explained that, originally, he thought he could simply work some economics into The Other Guys, his 2010 screwball buddy-cop movie, starring Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg.

"I always wanted The Other Guys to be a sort of comedy parable of the collapse, and what I didn't take into account was that when the laughs are that big, people don't really pay attention to the signifiers behind the laughs. So, people were like, 'Oh, it was?'

"But as a result of [making] that, I had done all of this research, and started reading a bunch of different books, and then I read The Big Short."

In McKay's film adaptation, which boasts a daunting ensemble cast (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Melissa Leo, Brad Pitt) and which has been racking up critics' kudos and nominations, McKay follows a gang of Wall Street renegades who had the savvy to see the real estate implosion of 2008 coming - and profited from it by betting against the housing market and the junk bonds propping it up.

One of the great achievements of McKay's movie, playing now in area theaters, is that he manages to make concepts such as credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and bespoke tranche opportunities (yes, really) comprehensible to all of us ignoramuses who didn't go to Wharton.

He does this, in part, by having the likes of actress Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath), singer Selena Gomez, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain explain complicated stuff such as derivatives and CDOs - as themselves, addressing the camera, breaking the so-called fourth wall.

"I think everyone was a little dubious about explaining it like that," McKay says. "But I just felt like this movie had to have a conversation with the audience. Otherwise, it just was in danger of becoming very shadowy and complicated, and then what you would end up doing is getting rid of all the details - which is, a lot of times, what these movies end up doing.

"Film formalists are probably going to be horrified . . . but it's definitely a movie we made to speak to the people."

McKay, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the filmmaker Shira Piven (Welcome to Me), looked to a number of other movies for inspiration.

A key one was 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom's movie about the creation of Factory Records in late-1970s Manchester, England. "I loved that movie, and when I saw it I, realized you could break the fourth wall. You could talk about what's true and what's not."

Other influences: All the President's Men, The Insider, American Splendor.

"We knew this movie couldn't be austere and monolithic. There are a lot of Wall Street movies that are all blues and grays, stagnant wide shots. I just felt like the whole key of this story was that these are human beings, flawed human beings . . .. They are not part of the pack or the herd. So the movie had to have a kind of rumpled feeling to it."

Rumpled all the way to the Oscars, perhaps?

Haynes talks "Carol"

This is not the way Todd Haynes usually works.

With his other films - going back to 1995's Safe, starring Julianne Moore, to 2002's Far From Heaven (with Moore and Dennis Quaid), and even to the 2011 mini-series take on Mildred Pierce (with Kate Winslett) - the writer/director was on board from the get-go, working on the screenplays, meeting with prospective stars.

But with Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt, a script had already been written (by Phyllis Nagy); a producer, Elizabeth Karlsen, was busy trying to put the pieces together; and Cate Blanchett had committed to the title role. Even the costume designer for the early 1950s period piece, Sandy Powell, had been signed.

"All these formidable women were attached to it when it came to me," Haynes says. "I was working on this other film that I was writing with a partner and we were starting to talk to some actors, one in particular, but we had to wait. . . . And then, ultimately, I was available. I had heard rumors about Carol, but I had sort of put it out of my head - it sounded like they had other directors in mind."

But Karlsen approached Haynes. The director recalls her saying " 'There might be a frock film I'm doing, and it's a lesbian love story by Patricia Highsmith, and it's going to star Cate Blanchett.' And I was, like, 'Umm-hmm.' "

Premiering at Cannes in May, Carol won its other star - Rooney Mara - the festival's best actress prize. Both Blanchett, as the older, wealthy Carol Aird, and Mara, as the young department store clerk Therese Belivet, are nominated for Golden Globes. It won't surprise anyone if they're both there again when the Academy Award contenders are announced on Jan. 14.

Carol, playing on area screens, is a dreamy, aching love story, and Haynes, a meticulous craftsman, looked to other films (Brief Encounter), to artists (Edward Hopper) and photographers (Saul Leiter, Ruth Orkin), for the tone and templates for his picture.

And, of course, he looked to the source material: Highsmith's novel, published, at the time, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.

"The book, I thought, was just so remarkable," Haynes said on a visit to Philadelphia in October. "Both in relationship to Patricia Highsmith's larger output as a writer, and then in its total specificity as this account of falling in love in the most anxious, uncertain, almost pathologized way. I just thought, 'Yeah, that's what it's like - all those feelings.' "

With Blanchett a given, Haynes started looking for the actress to play opposite her. He didn't have to look far.

"I'd been aware of Rooney's work," he says. "Each performance in each film, and her remarkable sort of competence in how to underplay her roles - and that became particularly true in very big characters, like in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

"That just speaks to a unique confidence and intelligence and understanding of the scale of the medium . . . which is not typical for younger actors, necessarily.

"That was interesting to me, and then I felt that I'd never really seen her do something like this. Maybe something as plain and as simple as this, but with a really specific trajectory as a character. And I just thought, 'Wow, she can bring all that nuance and all that restraint to something so tenuous and fragile as this character. How beautiful could that be?' "

Quite beautiful, indeed.

srea@phillynews.com

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