Too Big To Fail reviewed: William Hurt is exceptional as Treasury secretary Hank Paulson.

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May 23 2011 4:10 PM

Too Big To Fail

William Hurt is exceptional as Treasury secretary Hank Paulson.

William Hurt in "Too Big To Fail." Click image to expand.
William Hurt as Hank Paulson

Too Big To Fail (HBO, Monday at 9 p.m. ET), adapted by director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Peter Gould from a book by journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, is a decent movie with a stellar title, one catchier than MC Hammer's "Too Legit To Quit" if not quite as pungent as the Dead Kennedys' "Too Drunk To Fuck." Within the film, the phrase escapes from the mouth Hank Paulson in 2008, when he was the Secretary of the Treasury and the subprime mortgage market was not in the best of health. Paulson, played by William Hurt, barks that the government must bail out not only investment banks but also their illiquid insurer, AIG, otherwise the global economy will become a flaming disaster and we'll all die. "You want too big to fail? Here it is!" Also, the phrase serves to describe HBO's marketing campaign for the film, a blitz ensuring that  2B2F  endures as an Acela-class small-talking point through Labor Day. In an odd twist of audience dynamics, those   viewers most curious about 2B2F are perhaps those who are too sophisticated to swallow the simplifications to which a popular movie about TARP must resort. I am talking about the people who, watching the movie, are watching their bosses, business partners, idols, and enemies in action and enjoying the second-hand glamour of seeing, for instance, Bill Pullman wincing attractively at his own sharpness as JPMorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon.

I sense, even, that there's an opportunity for HBO to edit the movie down to a quarter-hour-length executive-summary special edition, playable only on BlackBerrys. The editor cutting it together would want to keep intact the sequence where the bosses of the banks assemble for an emergency meeting at the New York Federal Reserve. In tone, it's not unlike a scene of Danny Ocean pulling his crew together, with Hurt saying in voiceover: "Vikram Pandit is the new guy at Citigroup. No one knows if he's running Citi or if Citi's running him." Evan Handler moves his eyebrows to suggest that Goldman's Lloyd Blankfein is unbullshitable. As Morgan Stanley's twanging John Mack, Tony Shalhoub wears the air of someone looking to kill a large mammal, any large mammal, fast, and then to have it seasoned and seared on a mesquite grill. 

The opening credit sequence ticks through a short history of deregulation and the popping of the housing bubble, with a member of the Senate Banking Committee chiding in a C-SPAN clip that someone should have realized that the subprime-mortgage market was "too good to be true." The movie proper begins with Lehman Brothers tanking and Paulson coolly rejecting the cries for help from its arrogant CEO, Dick Fuld. Later in the film, we see Dimon ruelessly remark that Main Street thinks Wall Street is a bunch of "overpaid assholes." As Fuld, James Wood is the fuming incarnation of this type. 2B2F finds the actor at his most soaringly assholic, no mean feat for a guy who's played H.R. Haldeman, Rudy Giuliani, and a peregrine falcon in  Stuart Little 2. Warned that his own traders will jump ship, he spits at them as "selfish fucks" and the irony is richer than Warren Buffett. The movie begins in media res, in other words, and it kind of ends there too, after Paulson, Ben Bernanke (a chipmunky Paul Giamatti), and Timothy Geithner (Billy Crudup) orchestrate the AIG bailout and onscreen titles fill in the bad news and broken promises that flowed from the decision. The movie is a tense vignette with a nonending. 

Maybe it's natural for a business thriller—HBO's old adaptation of Barbarians at the Gate, for instance—to take on a proper dramatic shape, but an economics thriller is a different animal. "This is the nightmare scenario," someone says of the threat of economic collapse, and the movie itself is as messy as a nightmare itself. All the strong moments of Mamet-esque leveraging add up only to something surreal and formless. The fact that Paulson's undersecretaries (played by the likes of Topher Grace and Cynthia Nixon) function as a kind of narrative chorus explaining the credit market and such isn't a great help, nor is the overdone score, which is all the more conspicuous for being intensely generic. What you really want, maybe, is the droning and drilling of Johnny Greenwood's music for There Will Be Blood, another drama about capitalism and its discontents.

Still, the costume department deserves a special Emmy for excellence in necktie dimples, and the performances are memorable, especially Hurt's as Paulson. It stands out partly because of the actor's ultrafine sandpaper dryness, partly because of his nuance in depicting the doubts of a powerfully confident man, partly because Paulson is one of the few characters granted a flicker of either conscience or a personal life. Money never sleeps, and neither does he, in a movie that, updating Calvin Coolidge, proposes that the business of America is to stay open for business.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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