Movie Review: “The Big Short”

Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei
Adam McKay

The housing market crash of 2008 was no joke, which is why it might come as somewhat of a surprise that “The Big Short” is directed by the same man responsible for goofball comedies like “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights.” Though Adam McKay isn’t the first person you’d think of to direct a (mostly) serious movie about the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he’s clearly passionate about the material – both the real-life events and the book on which the film is based – because it shows in the final product. “The Big Short” isn’t quite as hard-hitting as J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” the underseen 2011 drama that offers a different perspective of the same events, but it’s a nonetheless effective examination of a nationwide disaster so ridiculous that it’s difficult not to laugh.

Adapted from “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis’ bestselling book of the same name, “The Big Short” follows a group of investment bankers through the years 2005-2008 as they predicted what many thought was impossible – the always-sturdy housing market collapsing – and then did the unthinkable by betting against (or shorting) the big banks to profit off their greed. The first to make his move is financial guru Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward hedge fund manager who discovers a worrying pattern in defaulted subprime mortgages (which make up the mortgage bonds that the banks trade on) and invests more than a billion dollars of his investors’ money into credit default swaps, i.e. insurance against the failure of those bonds, which didn’t even exist at the time.

Everyone on Wall Street thinks he’s crazy, except for hotshot Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who sees a potential gold mine in Burry’s theory and convinces short-tempered, nihilistic hedge funder Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his tight-knit team (Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater) to go into business with him, despite the fact that Mark hates everything that guys like Jared stand for. Word of Vennett’s proposal also reaches small-time investors Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who request help from their mentor, former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), in getting them a seat at the big boys table.

That’s quite a lot to absorb, but it’s only the beginning of what is a very exposition-heavy film; there’s a good chance you won’t even know what’s going on during the first 20 minutes as you’re inundated with an avalanche of information. Fortunately, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph are well aware of how confusing this may be to the average moviegoer, so they explain all the complex financial jargon any way they can: through fourth wall-breaking sidebars, relatable metaphors using games like Jenga and blackjack, onscreen animations and even celebrity cameos that are best left unspoiled. What could have been a dull and dense PowerPoint presentation on finance banking is turned into a pretty entertaining lesson that helps you understand just how messed up the whole financial crisis really was.

Additionally, McKay does a really good job of interweaving the different stories into one larger narrative with crisp, fast-paced editing, and although some subplots are better than others, each one boasts strong performances from its talented cast, ridiculous wigs be damned. For as great as the ensemble may be, however, Carell is the only actor whose character has anything resembling an arc. He’s also the only one who seems to have any moral quandary about what they’re doing, because for as much as he wants to screw over the banks for their own stupidity/arrogance, he knows that doing so will lead to more people losing jobs and being kicked out of their homes. That poses an interesting problem for the film, because the more you root for these guys to win, the more you realize that you’re effectively rooting for the American economy to fail. That doesn’t make them very sympathetic characters, but they’re not to blame either; they were simply smarter than everyone else and took advantage of it.

Not everything McKay tries works. He makes some strange creative choices (like the inclusion of music video interludes and photo montages, presumably intended to represent the progression in time) that distract more than anything else, while the extended backstories for Carell and Bale’s characters are totally unnecessary. (No one cares if Michael Burry had a glass eye, yet the movie brings it up at least a half dozen times.) In spite of these flaws, “The Big Short” is incredibly fascinating, and that’s saying something for a film that could have been a huge bore. The steady stream of humor helps, but this is first and foremost a drama, and you’ll find it hard not to walk away at least a little furious about what could have been done to prevent this, and perhaps more troubling, why it will probably happen again.