You probably understand very little of the Wall-Street born financial lingo of The Big Short, and it knows that. It doesn’t want to be one of those dry dramas with a bunch of boardroom conversations that only appeal to people who have been in that very boardroom before. Instead, it intends to not only entertain, but to educate those who felt a bit outside the pool when the housing bubble popped back in 2008. Already a respectable notion in its own right, as many people (myself included) feel deeply overwhelmed by information that we seemingly need to know in order to not be jerked away from our home one day. However, the question then becomes if Anchorman and Step Brothers director Adam McKay, who as it turns out was an enraged political activist this whole time, can bring his sensibilities from those broad comedy films over in a way that can make this subject matter entertaining.
Taking place over the course of late 2006 to September 2008, the film chronicles the story of several men who predicted the financial crisis before it occurred. Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the head of Scion Capital discovers the problem years ahead of time, and invests nearly all of his company’s money in a “short”, betting against the housing market in anticipation of the crash. Mark Baum (Steve Carell), is a hot tempered money manager who enlists his small team to break down the corruption in the market after a deeply convincing presentation by hot headed Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) convinces him of the collapse. Finally, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is a retired man of Wall Street who precautions and aids two young business owners as they hope to profit off of the madness.
A big part of the film’s magnetism comes from it’s performances. Carell’s cut-throat in particular is just fantastic, and is perhaps the best of his career. Mark Baum is not somebody who responds well to lies, corporate greed, or somebody taking his cab, and Carell utterly immerses us in that rage and eccentricity. He’s the character who the film wants us to identify most with, his increasing fury hopefully parallel with our own. Bale also shines as the adorably awkward Burry. He’s not the most stable man in the room, but he just might be the smartest. Gosling gives a more comedic turn, Jared being the character that often breaks the forth wall to explain to the audience what is going on. When things get too complex, we beg for his return to fill us in with his sarcastic, blunt demeanor. It’s yet another marker on Gosling’s steadily growing comedy resume. Pitt has the smallest role, but his paranoid yet sobering speeches balance out the emotions of all the other characters.
The script by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph is equally sharp and sobering, providing the film’s finest stylistic choices. The choice to consistently talk to the audience is often thought of as a hackneyed one, but it really makes all of the difference here. It works so well because it doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. It knows that the average people in the theater don’t know what the hell is going on, and calls them out on it. The film will often call upon celebrity cameos to explain some of the more important aspects in simpler terms, a choice that is both slightly patronizing and completely hysterical. The dialogue here is also wonderful. Sure a lot of it is lingo, but the film never forgets that these were in fact people as well, injecting a lot of biting humor into the conversations. Since McKay is so experienced with broader comedy, he brings everything down a notch here to create a natural, yet slightly zany tone.
However, while McKay excels at certain aspects of his first proper drama, several of the other filmmaking gears fall completely flat. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd is nothing short of terrible. Zooming and heaving around every room to the point of utter nausea, it completely distracts from what’s going on. My guess is that they wanted to capture the feeling of being an onlooker as these people talk, but it just doesn’t work. It just might cause a couple walk-outs from sheer motion sickness. There’s also some strange editing choices, scenes ending as a piece of dialogue as they’re being said, and strange montages with constant cuts to black that go out of their way to reveal themselves as pieces of a movie. The film is at times as shoddily put together as a student film, which makes me wonder if it was rushed out for awards season without getting the proper polish it needed.
The Big Short is a fascinating and fantastically acted look into the greed of those who take, and handle our money. In some ways, it turns itself into a bit of an underdog story for those who we might root against in a different context. It maintains it’s deeply rooted sense of satire right up ‘till the end, even if it is a bit too long. However, this is truly the work of a director still finding his footing, and more often than not it seems like McKay is struggling with just how much he needs to immerse the audience in his story. With that said, if you want to ingest a bit of knowledge, laughs, and a bit of rage this Christmas, this is a worthwhile investment indeed.