“In a mad world, only the mad are sane.”
This quote—most often associated with Ran, director Akira Kurosawa’s King Lear adaptation—carries a profound amount of resonance when viewing The Big Short. Based on the 2010 nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, Adam McKay’s latest film offers a kaleidoscopic look into the months leading up to the 2007 financial meltdown, following the perspective of several key Wall Street players who saw the crash coming and decided, in a move considered by everyone else to be nothing short of clinical insanity, to bet against the banks.
The Big Short is an angry film. And rightfully so—the amount of callous thievery characters uncover here is enough to make any rational person’s blood boil. It’s also, unquestionably, a funny film, tempering its acerbic leanings by highlighting just how blatantly surreal the whole ordeal truly was. The comedy serves as the sugar that helps the abrasive medicine go down.
Our initial guide into this world comes in the form of bank trader, Jared Vennett (played, to smarmy perfection, by Ryan Gosling). After a phone mishap puts him in touch with temperamental money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), the two form an unlikely (and contentious) partnership wherein Jared offers inside information as Baum’s team begins exploring claims that the housing market is set to collapse at any moment. Elsewhere, two wannabe Wall Street upstarts, Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro, respectively) accidently stumble upon the same conclusion. When their attempt to report the oncoming storm falls on deaf ears, the duo recruits retired trader Ben Rickert (a surprisingly understated Brad Pitt) to help them game the system.
Fleshing out this cast is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric hedge fund manager with Asperger’s who discovers the banks’ deception after reading hundreds of relevant spreadsheets. Bucking orders from both his superiors and clients, Burry proceeds to invest the fund’s money in favor of the banks failing.
One of the most notable and admirable aspects of the film is its refusal, despite boasting major commercial talent both in front of and behind the camera, to oversimplify the issues at play. Obviously, the inevitable barrier to entry is the opaque financial lingo, an obstacle the film addresses right upfront when a bemused Jared Vennett breaks the fourth wall by turning directly to the camera and stating, “I bet you have no idea what any of this means.” Certainly, Adam McKay isn’t the first filmmaker who springs to mind when it comes to molding complex notions into something approaching semi-accessibility, especially given that the closest the director has ever come to this kind of material involved an embezzlement subplot in his 2010 action-comedy, The Other Guys. Known for fostering an improv-heavy, loose set, McKay must also deal with jargon-heavy dialogue which doesn’t exactly lend itself well to comedic riffing.
As such, McKay looks to counteract the inherently dry, impenetrable subject matter on display with boatloads of vibrant, cinematic style. With frequent use of freeze-frames, cutaways and the aforementioned breaking of the fourth wall, McKay owes a good deal of his approach here to Martin Scorsese—specifically, it’s hard not to imagine The Wolf of Wall Street being an ever-present reference point. While such cinematic language comes so gracefully for Scorsese, however, one can feel this film straining at times, with the abundance of playful narrative tricks eventually growing a bit stale—imagine an overactive child that is afraid to sit still or be quiet for one second. By the end of the two-hour-plus running time, there’s practically sweat glistening off this thing.
That’s not to say McKay’s tendency towards stylish flourishes doesn’t color the movie in countless positive ways. One of the film’s most ingenious and effective elements emerges when discussions of Wall Street terminology are illustrated via comedic cutaways to various celebrities giving lectures, whether it’s celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain explaining CDOs while preparing a dish or actress Margot Robbie breaking down the concept of subprime mortgages while lounging in a bubble bath. Between his high-profile cast and these cameos, McKay understands that sometimes the best way to feed his audience dense informational dumps is by putting it in the mouths of movie and TV stars.
While each plotline illuminates a different element of this convoluted story, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph are not concerned with interlacing these narrative strands together in any abstruse or even meaningful way. The trio of Jamie, Charlie and Ben only briefly cross path with Baum’s team while Bale’s Michael Burry spends most screentime isolated, confined to his office. Between balancing these various stories, serving up essentially verbal dissertations on the housing market and making sure everything tracks as both funny and discernable, the film risks feeling akin to a circus performer juggling flaming balls while simultaneously trying to rub his stomach. Luckily, both McKay and the cast are all too willing to tackle these challenges with gusto and the film somehow manages to stay consistently engaging without ever derailing in any major way.
As a whole, the actors acquit themselves well with the stock market verbiage they must rattle off like a secondary language: It’s similar to watching Shakespeare—you may not catch every word, but you get the gist. If there’s anything approaching a standout performance, it’s Bale’s, who vividly sells Burry’s various idiosyncrasies (smiling awkwardly at people, blaring heavy metal music in his office as he looks over documents) without ever making him feel like a cartoon or compromising his sense of humanity. Carell also turns in great work as Baum, acting as audience surrogate in terms of reacting to his discoveries with a mix of stunned disbelief and blood-pressure-raising anger. Unfortunately, The Big Short hits an awkward streak whenever it attempts to shoehorn in background info about the effect his brother’s death has on Baum’s work. Also not helping is saddling Marisa Tomei with the decidedly flat role that is Baum’s supportive wife.
The Big Short may not always succeed, but it stands as an essential film nonetheless. Given the way we know history played out, it’s not surprising that the story concludes with no real catharsis or Trading Places-esque twist wherein the duplicitous money men are put behind bars. Ultimately, this is not a film about brave individuals who dared to go into battle with the banks—it’s about those who decided to loot the village and get the hell out of Dodge before the blood started flowing. In a world as broken and as compromised as this one, the fact that such opportunists are the closest we have to heroes is a sobering statement all on its own.
Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph (screenplay); Michael Lewis (book)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Marissa Tomei, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Melissa Leo
Release Date: December 11, 2015