“I’m standing in front of a burning house and I’m offering you fire insurance on it.” That’s how trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) describes the titular transaction at the heart of The Big Short, a dramedy based on the build up to the 2008 financial crisis. Wirter-director Adam McKay (best known for helming Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers) gets a little more serious here, tackling recent real-world events in a movie that’s fueled by a righteous sense of indignation at the ways that our ingrained systems (namely the big banks) failed their citizens.
It sounds like a big leap forward for McKay, but not when you factor in the underlying social commentary and criticism that he snuck into his more straightforward comedies. Anchorman dealt with women’s emerging roles in the workplace and the pushback from the established patriarchy, while its sequel examined the absurdity of the 24-hour news cycle. Talladega Nights mocked the over-corporatization of the sporting world and The Other Guys (released in 2010) actually had an embezzling billionaire bad guy, pointing a finger directly at the kind of greedy one-percenters who sped up the economic collapse that the world was still reeling from. Step Brothers was about putting nutsacks on drum kits, so maybe it doesn’t follow the pattern.
Regardless, McKay has sharpened his pencil here, narrowing his focus to a group of men who stood to profit from the bursting bubble of the housing market because they paid attention when no one else was. Gosling’s greasy Vennett character is the narrator in The Big Short who, along with various other cast members, ends up breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the camera more than Zach Morris in Saved By The Bell.
Iconoclast investor Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the first to see the writing on the wall in terms of the housing market, which he does by identifying trends and then betting against the market in a move that would end up infuriating his hedge fund clients and bosses alike, despite the prescience he showed. Basically, no one else but Burry thought it was possible that millions of Americans would no longer be able to pay their mortgages. But Burry’s plan eventually gets leaked to a disparate group of people that all end up making the same bet as him, despite the long odds and the fact that were flouting conventional wisdom.
Among those people are brash fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his tight-knit group of employees who end up working with Vennett, and neophyte traders Charlie & Jamie (John Magaro & Finn Wittrock) who team up with seasoned finance analyst Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to grow their startup investment firm and take advantage of the approaching mortgage crisis. That’s a lot of plot threads to follow, but the film is mostly streamlined and hyper-focused on how these men saw the errors in an increasingly broken system and how that translated into a financial windfall.
Bale fares best in The Big Short, bringing a weird idiosyncratic intensity to his portrayal of Burry. Now Burry was interesting enough as is – a medical doctor with a glass eye who turned to the world of finance, making large sums of money before essentially quitting that as well. Apparently he loved heavy metal as well, as Bale learned to play drums for the role. He plays him as a socially awkward genius, and a role that could devolve into Sheldon-like levels of “on-the-spectrum” tics instead feels well-rounded and genuine.
Carrell is not as lucky as his performance here is bigger and broader than the rest of movie, a problem when the emotional core of the film revolves around a tragedy in his character’s recent past. It’s not a deal breaker as the rest of the large cast (including too-brief appearances by Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei) remain more tonally consistent and the movie nearly falls over itself spouting Aaron Sorkin-like dialogue that’s both dense and funny.
It makes sense that The Big Short is based on a book by Michael Lewis (the author of Moneyball) as both movie adaptations share a curiousity and affinity for numbers. They’re brainy without being intimidating, and winningly engaged with subject matter that could be dry if handled incorrectly. It results in an instructive kind of movie that attempts to take a big, unwieldy subject like the financial collapse (full of acronyms and Wall Street jargon) and make it palatable for general audiences. It succeeds for the most part, growing ever more inventive in its continued use of metaphors and examples. And despite the serious subject matter this is a comedy with a healthy sense of the absurd, so we get stars like bombshell Margot Robbie and badboy chef Anthony Bourdain (playing themselves) explaining complex financial concepts to the viewer.
A comedy about the financial crisis sounds like a non-starter on paper. How can millions of Americans losing their homes translate into yuks on screen? But McKay isn’t making light of the common man’s struggles. He’s set his sights on the complacency and cronyism at the highest levels of finance and government that allowed this to happen, and in making The Big Short attempted to shed light on how we were all screwed. It’s a sympathetic movie that’s insightful and angry, wielding comedy as a righteous weapon in defense of the downtrodden.
The Big Short (2015)
Directed by Adam McKay
Runtime: 130 minutes