A group of angry Wall Street traders predicting and profiting off the 2008 economic recession doesn’t scream entertainment, but writer and director Adam McKay’s (“Anchorman”) “The Big Short” makes for an honest and captivating tale of greed, lies and devastation.
The film stars some of Hollywood’s most handsome men with some of the world’s ugliest haircuts. As bankers and traders, they predict the crash through careful analysis of the housing market as early as 2005 and decide they can profit by betting banks that the loans they have given out will default.
Initially, ”The Big Short” reads as a documentary narrated by Ryan Gosling’s (“Drive”) character Jared Vennett (which begs the question: why doesn't Ryan Gosling narrate documentaries?). While the camera cuts rapidly through stills from music videos, 'for sale' signs and celebrity mug shots, Jared introduces the audience to the world of 2005 Wall Street. It’s patchy and quick, moving quickly between images in a way that resembles memory. In fact, the whole movie is filmed like a memory. Long scenes are broken up by quick slides of images, much like how one might remember a year in their life.
Although the subject seems out of place compared to McKay’s previous work (mostly absurdist Will Ferrell comedies), “The Big Short” is peppered with humor even in its slower moments. Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”), the film’s comedy veteran, carries much of that comedic weight, employing the painful but funny style of comedy reminiscent of his character on “The Office,” Michael Scott. However, Gosling holds his own with a sharp wit and mean deadpan. The humor is dark, but it serves as a cutter for the film’s heavy technical jargon and darker moral undertones.
“The Big Short” sets itself up to be a movie with a powerhouse ensemble cast, but the characters come across more as independent entities rather than one cohesive unit. Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight Rises”) plays an oddball neurosurgeon-turned-trader, Michael Burry, who is the first to discover the housing market’s dirty little secret. He delivers one of the film’s strongest performances, but unfortunately does not share the screen with any of the other leads. While they all deliver strong performances on their own, the actors fail to unify as an ensemble in the way that’s expected in a story without one single lead.
The film is odd and self-aware in a way that comes off as endearing rather than nervous. McKay knows that one of his greatest obstacles is the public’s ignorance or misunderstanding of the complex systems that led to both the creation and the burst of the loan bubble behind the 2008 financial crisis. Because a film can’t have footnotes and working definitions into conversation is unnatural, McKay uses short star-studded asides to explain the terminology needed to understand and fully appreciate the film. Synthetic CDOs and mortgage security were never sexy until explained by Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez. In this regard, the film seems aware of its role as an educational tool. It's important for the American people to understand the biggest economic crisis of (most) of their lifetimes and McKay seems to argue that learning about it can be fun too.
“The Big Short” isn’t “The Wolf of Wall Street” and it wants to make that point clear right away. Choosing Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) as the bombshell cameo who explains mortgage bonds in a bubble bath can only be seen as a nod to the 2013 Wall Street blockbuster. However, “The Big Short” goes beyond the glam and scam of its predecessor to get at the heart of this kind of banking — working class Americans. In on of the film’s final scenes, Carell’s character, Mark Baum, debates not selling his credit default swaps because he is disgusted with himself and the banks whose greed pushed the loan bubble to burst.
The ending of “The Big Short” is as satisfying as it is unsettling. After spending two hours following the ups and downs of the characters, it’s rewarding to see Gosling kiss a $47 million check. But then the camera cuts to a family living out of their car in a gas station parking lot after losing their home in the recession. And therein lies the great tragedy that “The Big Short” manages to uncover — for some people the housing market crash of 2008 was the best thing that ever happened to them, but for the over 6 million Americans who lost their homes that year, it was the worst thing that ever happened to them.
“The Big Short” isn’t flashy or glamorous, but it is eye opening. It gives its audience an inside look into the corruption of Wall Street while still applauding the oddballs and eccentrics who are willing to take risks and go against the grain.