Adam McKay, the man who brought us Anchorman and Step Brothers, might not be the most obvious choice to direct a movie about the 2008 financial meltdown, but it’s 2015 and the world is a fun and magical (and more than occasionally shitty) place, so here we are.
Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell and a bunch of “Hey, I know that guy!” actors (Finn Wittrock, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro) play real-life industry insiders who realized that the housing market was on its way down to the pits of hell way before it actually tanked.
Based as it is on a non-fiction book by Moneyball author Michael Lewis, The Big Short is fairly inside baseballer-y (ba-doom-ch), with industry terms like “CDO,” “synthetic CDO” and “tranches” thrown around willy-nilly. Thankfully, McKay (who co-wrote the script) leans into the fact that very few people watching this movie will know what the fuck is going on, obliterating the fourth wall at times so characters and celebrities on cameo duty can explain what the fuck a sub-prime mortgage is. It livens up a potentially dull subject, and it’s also a gentle dig at how little your average person knows or even cares about the financial systems that ultimately rule their lives. “I know the phrase ‘mortgage-backed security’ makes your eyes glaze over, so here’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub.”
It’s to McKay’s credit that he makes The Big Short so fun; there are a lot of talented comedic actors here (Ryan Gosling is a standout—I cannot wait for The Nice Guys), the banter is strong, and there are pop culture montages strewn throughout, meant to mark the passage of time, that help maintain visual interest. It’s remarkably suspenseful, too, as we (and the characters) wait to see if the economy will actually crash, yielding them massive returns against the millions they bet it would fail. The whole thing is this gif:
(There’s also a lot of handheld photography, with characters going in and out of focus and the camera jittering around. It gives the film a more loose, documentary feel—I didn’t mind it, but if you’re particularly sensitive to shakycam and its ilk, it might bug you.)
There are elements of The Big Short that don’t work. Chief among them is Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, the numbers whiz with Asperger’s syndrome who originally figured out the housing market was going to crash. Bale falls prey to Johnny Depp Syndrome here, playing Burry less as a character than a collection of tics. We don’t really get to know him the way we do the other characters; he’s a great way of setting up what’s going on, but as the movie progresses, momentum is lost every time we cut back to him. He needed to chill, and an oddly subdued Brad Pitt needed to ramp it up as the enema-loving, back-to-nature ex-banker; Pitt’s best when he’s playing weirdos (Burn After Reading, Fight Club), as opposed to “I’m Srs Actor Brad Pitt, I’m a producer on this movie, how am I managing to save the world while simultaneously being this hunky?”
The Big Short also has something of Heroes season one about it: Great build-up leading to a fizzle in the third act. On the one hand, it’s accurate: It’s not like everything got tied up in a big bow after 2008, with the guilty parties carted off to jail and financial fraud coming to an end. For anyone that’s worried, The Big Short takes care not to present the financial crash as some great, triumphant moment for the main characters: They may have raked in the dough, but people lost their homes, their jobs. People died. It’s not exactly a morally clear position our ostensible heroes find themselves in. But, while I was appreciate what McKay was going for, I wish he’d found a way to keep the momentum going. Relegating your characters’ closure to post-credit title cards is a cop-out, even if it’s not nearly as extreme a situation as “OH AND BY THE WAY ALAN TURING KILLED HIMSELF.”