All-star cast can’t keep ‘Too Big to Fail’ in the black

In HBO’s “Too Big to Fail,’’ William Hurt (above) portrays Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Edward Asner (below) plays Warren Buffett. In HBO’s “Too Big to Fail,’’ William Hurt (above) portrays Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Edward Asner (below) plays Warren Buffett. (Photos By Macall B. Polay)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 23, 2011

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You know how we love to play the casting game, and choose famous people to play other famous people in the inevitable movie? Well the meetings for “Too Big to Fail,’’ HBO’s docudrama about the 2008 financial collapse, must have been a crazy-fun game of casting, one that wound up with William Hurt as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a bewigged Edward Asner as Warren Buffett, Billy Crudup as Timothy Geithner, Dan Hedaya as Barney Frank, and Paul Giamatti as Ben Bernanke.

Alas, that’s where all the fun ends regarding “Too Big to Fail.’’ It’s hard to come up with a reason to recommend this movie, which premieres tonight at 9, except as a dry class in economics. It’s a fast-paced and yet somehow extremely logy lesson in how financial institutions and systems work, with too little human drama in the mix. And that’s particularly unfortunate in this case, given the acting potential on tap and the expertise of the director, Curtis Hanson of “LA Confidential.’’

If you’re hoping, as I was, that “Too Big to Fail’’ would be a satire whose targets are the fat cats who pushed us into a recession without endangering their own stability, then you too will be disappointed. This is a mostly straight-up procedural point of view of the Wall Street nightmare that continues to dog us, with only a sprinkling of disbelief, humor, or tragedy detectable amid the frenzied downward spiral.

Based on the book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the movie zooms forward with the soundtrack and editing motions of a suspense thriller, as lots of anxiety-stricken men in suits make urgent phone calls. Major drama is clearly unfolding, as the mortgage crisis grows, as Lehman Brothers falls apart, as the Troubled Asset Relief Program begins. And yet every scene is so mired in technical detail, it feels like a new homework assignment to tackle. The men, most often Hurt’s Paulson, groan and sweat endlessly as they spit out threats, promises, warnings, and pleas, while James Woods as Lehman chair Richard Fuld sits looking murderous in his sleek office as he blows the chances for his company’s survival. At no point in the wonky heavy breathing is there a tangible sense that real lives are affected.

The script, by “Breaking Bad’’ writer Peter Gould, is too often forced. Each time a character talks to another in “Too Big to Fail,’’ he is also trying to explain the US financial system to viewers. Many lines have some kind of “if we do that, then this will happen’’ construction, to try to keep viewers apprised of what’s at stake in the conversation. It’s all too obviously movie talk.

Throughout, distinctive faces keep showing up briefly, from Tony Shalhoub as Morgan Stanley chief executive John Mack and Evan Handler as Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein to Matthew Modine as Merrill Lynch chief executive John Thain. It’s an embarrassment of featured players. And yet they all ultimately blur together into a series of men making big-shot talk. At a few points, Gould invites us to feel for Paulson, as we see him sleepless, getting words of support from his wife, unable to make any of the possible solutions to the crisis work. The scenes come as a relief, as we see an actor here doing something other than seemingly playing a high-stakes round of Monopoly.

“Too Big to Fail’’ is a chronicle of recent events, as was, say, the fine movie “The Social Network.’’ But it fails to transform those events into anything valuable or special, beyond docudramatic re-creation. Ultimately, it’s scope is too big, and it fails.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit


Starring: William Hurt, Topher Grace, Paul Giamatti, Billy Crudup, James Woods, Tony Shalhoub, Bill Pullman, Matthew Modine, Cynthia Nixon, Edward Asner


Time: Tonight, 9-10:40