In some ways, I truly think that only a filmmaker with a background in comedy could have made The Big Short work like it does. Co-writer/director Adam McKay takes a depressing and deeply serious subject and infuses it with enough dark comedy to make the whole thing go down smoothly. In fact, considering how dense the material is and how McKay leans into the minutia and complex nature of the housing bubble, it’s really quite impressive that it succeeds. Now, it’s a definite help that he has an A-list ensemble led by all stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, that’s for sure, with Carell and Gosling especially doing impressive work. That being said, the direction and writing are praise worthy as well. I’m sure some folks will be utterly lost or just disinterested, but The Big Short is something I responded to. I’m not its biggest backer, but the good far outweighs the bad here in my eyes. Could the running time have been trimmed? Sure. Could the middle act had a slightly quicker pace to it? Certainly. Does that cripple the film? Not at all. This movie succeeds in adapting a potentially impossible to translate book and making it palatable for the masses. The Big Short probably won’t make my top ten list, but it’s an Oscar hopeful flick that’s well worth seeing.
The film follows a number of members of the world of high finance just as the housing bubble in the mid to late 2000’s is about to burst. There’s Michael Burry (Bale), a former neurosurgeon turned market wiz who actually reads what’s in the housing bundles, knows that the banks are going to fail, and bets against them. Burry sees the subprime loans are a house of cards, though since he’s an oddball who doesn’t wear shoes and has anti-social tendencies, no one listens to him. Some do listen to Jared Vennett (Gosling), a smooth talking Deutsche Bank money man who sees the truth in Burry’s plan/warning. He’s also our narrator, letting us into this world, right before the rest of the world finds out about it. Vennett is almost giddy at screwing over the banks, while Mark Baum (Carell) is more conflicted. A hedge-fund manager at a firm within Morgan Stanley, he’s unlike by almost everyone except his three employees (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong), though he still winds up partnering with Vennett. While Vennett is our narrator, Baum is the closest thing to our hero. There’s also Ben Rickert (Pitt), a retired banker helping out up and comers Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). They’re all outsiders in one way or another, be it due to their personality, status, or some combination of the two, but they all see the collapse before it happens. It’s just a matter of what comes next.
As interesting as the filmmaking is, what makes this movie work is the ensemble cast, who sink their teeth into the material in a big way. Best in show to me is Steve Carell, who creates this complex and mostly unlikable character that you still feel like you want to root for. Carell has some funny moments, but he very much is identifying with the dramatic and tragic aspects of the character. It’s among the best performances of his career so far. Next in line is Ryan Gosling, who lets loose with this high energy role in a way that will absolutely delight. Gosling is an underrated comedian, so seeing him embrace the insanity is thrilling. He’s the least morally righteous of the main group, but he’s also the one with the most personality. It’s really something impressive. Christian Bale is excellent as well, though his performance is more easily noticeable due to the actor-y tics on display. It’s still great stuff, just not quite on the same level as Carell and Gosling. Bale has the showiest role, that’s for sure. Brad Pitt mostly has an extended cameo, while the aforementioned likes of Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock all are solid, if unspectacular. The rest of the cast includes Max Greenfield, Melissa Leo, Billy Magnussen, Margot Robbie (who I’ll mention again shortly), Marisa Tomei, and more.
Adam McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph have tackled The Big Short in a way that I doubt anyone else would have. McKay’s writing and direction mix comedy, drama, and tragedy in an almost equal amount, which keeps you intrigued the whole way through. Among their boldest choices are having characters break the fourth wall to remind viewers that events really happened like this (or didn’t, in certain cases), those same characters turning to the camera to explain things, or even employing Margot Robbie from The Wolf of Wall Street to sit in a bubble bath and educate us on the crisis. It doesn’t always work, but it makes things very interesting, I’ll say that. This is McKay’s best film, for sure, with Barry Ackroyd‘s cinematography being of note as well. The editing doesn’t fully help smooth out the pacing, but it does create an energy that drives us through the slower parts.
In the end, The Big Short is a dense yet fairly entertaining look at a horrifying moment in American financial history. The acting and some of the cleverness really elevates things from what could otherwise have felt like taking medicine. Its awards prospects remain to be seen, but regardless of how Oscar receives it in the coming weeks, this is something definitely worthy of your time, money, and energy at the theater. It’s a very solid flick, one that will make you laugh but also make you angry. That’s the point though, so in that regard, The Big Short is a definite success…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!