Directed by Adam McKay
Written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay from the book by Michael Lewis
Starring Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo and Brad Pitt
Runtime: 130 minutes
It’s a pretty bold move to make a big-budget, star-studded film about the whys and hows of the financial collapse of 2008. It’s an even bolder move if you’re co-writer/director Adam McKay, best known for co-writing and directing both Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues as well as Talladega Nights: The Story of Ricky Bobby. But, someone made the call to give the film the greenlight and now we have The Big Short, a serio-comic look at how the big banks defrauded the American people and the people that saw it before anyone else and made tons of money off of it. You may think that this subject would be over McKay’s head, considering his track record (of course, he did co-write Ant-Man, which was pretty smart), but he delivers the goods in a fun, if sometimes confusing, way.
The story focuses on a handful of characters who spotted the burgeoning financial crisis, starting with Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who is a primary character and also serves as a camera-addressing narrator. We’re also introduced to Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially inept MD that wound up in the financial sector. Michael is the one who first discovers the disparity between the high credit rating and the failing subprime mortgages that make them up. He decides to ‘short’ the mortgage bonds (basically to bet against them to bet that they will collapse), something that has never been done before because the securities in the mortgage industry have always been solid and had never failed. Vennett gets wind of this and tries to get in on the action, only everyone he proposes it to laughs at him, except Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a cynical hedge fund manager that hates the big banks because of their deceptive practices. After investigating these mortgages for himself, he decides to buy in.
Separate from them, the managers of a small hedge fund from Colorado, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) also stumble upon these bad mortgages and with the help of retired investment banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), they also get in on the action.
McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph do everything they can to bring out tension, weave in humor and keep something that on paper is boring banking stuff and make it into the dramatic issue it really was, since this situation led to the worst financial disaster since the stock market crash of 1929 and the second Great Depression (though many will call it The Great Recession because they don’t want to admit it was really a depression). They created a smart and crisp script balances a very complex situation with human emotion and humor, weaving in meta moments where Gosling’s Vennett breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the camera and offers us humorous asides that star the likes of Margot Robbie, Selina Gomez and chef/TV personality Anthony Bourdain to explain the complex banking jargon that is being used in the film. It’s an interesting and smart way to approach this kind of film that, if done without a wink and a nod, would have been nearly impossible to completely follow. They also work hard to make their main characters people that can be rooted for, despite the fact that they are betting on the total collapse of the global economy and end up making a lot of money off of people losing everything. It’s a difficult position to put viewers in, but they pull it off reasonably well. Their ultimate goal, it seems, is to make people mad at anyone and everyone who had a hand in this and in that they also succeed. There is some empathy for Mark Baum because he is the only one that appears genuinely affected by the fact that he’s cashing in on people’s misery, the very kind of person he’s been crusading against for many years.
McKay’s direction is spot on as well. He uses a documentary approach, keeping the camera moving without being distracting. The film is lively with a great pace that keeps attention all the way through the difficult banking maneuvers and the 2+ hours it’s on. He also gets some really good performances from everyone on screen. McKay’s come a long way since Anchorman’s endearing sloppiness, showing a real command of the camera, framing and pacing. The film pulsates from the energy McKay imbues in it from an obvious passion for this story.
The one thing that may keep people from the film is that it keeps everyone and everything at arm’s length. Even when Mark’s deeply tragic backstory comes to light and you feel bad for him, there isn’t enough time in the film to feel too bad for him for too long and his trauma is pushed to the side in favor of the primary narrative. If the film weren’t trying to juggle five main characters and many important supporting roles plus needing to explain what was happening, they may have been able to focus more on Mark and his struggle. He’s an interesting enough character to get a whole movie, but to have done that would have cut out many important characters. That’s the trouble with the film: it needs to be big to tell the story properly and in so doing, it sacrifices some of its characters and many emotional moments, making its greatest strength equally its greatest weakness.
The Big Short may not light the world on fire the way it seems like it wants to, nor will it likely be widely remembered past awards season, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a really good movie. It achieves about 80% of what it sets out to do, and that’s pretty successful for a picture of this kind. McKay’s boldness to make the picture is certainly rewarded with the final product and it serves as a valuable resource for people to get at least a semblance of a handle on what happened in 2008. That’s not to say the film should be taken as gospel, it’s still a movie after all, but it may at least spark an interest in finding out how the big banks really caused the near-destruction of the world’s economy and that’s at least a start.