Adam McKay’s The Big Short is big on hard-hitting truths and short on laughs. Oh don’t get me wrong; the comprised cast certainly thinks it’s volleying humor-laced lines back and forth with the rhythmic ferocity of an Aaron Sorkin script. Unfortunately, McKay and Charlie Randolph’s screenplay is obnoxiously self-aware, populated with eye-opening financial factoids packaged with Hollywood cameos and pizzazz aplenty. The stinker is how devoid of depth it all feels, certainly less passionate than Sorkin and Steven Zaillian’s intellectually riveting Moneyball (another Michael Lewis adaptation) and J.C. Chandor’s laser-focused Margin Call. Heck, even with Caligula parallels and debauchery filled to the brim, The Wolf of Wall Street maintained dramatic composure when required. The Big Short, meanwhile, is a film that’s inherently at war with itself: it wants to be an uproarious grand time at the movies but also a finger-wagging lecturer about the evils of corporate America. The trouble is, those same greedy billionaires — who walked away scot-free with millions despite causing the 2008 financial collapse — ironically provide The Big Short’s comedic value. I guess nothing says forgiveness like crooks in suits making you guffaw with locker room antics and fourth wall-breaking humblebrags.
Not all is lost, however. The Big Short’s saving grace is the astounding performance from Steve Carell, so tragically compelling as Mark Baum (based on the real-life Steve Eisman), head of a hedge fund organization called FrontPoint Partners that bets against its own umbrella corporation, Morgan Stanley, when it purchases an unfathomable amount of default credit insurance in preparation of the housing bubble burst. Watching the sheer disgust and horror on Carell’s face as he interviews investment banker after investment banker — whom knowingly offer mortgages that are bound to turn delinquent — is a sight I won’t soon forget. Baum’s dark past and future begin colliding the closer the housing market collapse looms on the American populace, as once again he’s faced with the false promise that money can solve any personal or financial obstacle thrown one’s way. A few years prior, Mark’s brother committed suicide, and instead of seeking professional medical help for his sibling, Baum thought giving him money would insta-cure his depression. There for emotional support in a more thankless wife role than Sienna Miller in American Sniper, Marisa Tomei’s Cynthia begs Mark to keep a cool head and not burden himself with the impossible mission of solving the world’s misfortunes.
Mark’s housing disaster foresight stemmed from the socially inept yet brilliant Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a neurologist turned full-time investor who created his own hedge fund known as Scion Capital. Using his own mathematical formula, Burry deduced that the rise of short sales would result in an excess of mortgage delinquencies that investors and buyers wouldn’t be able to cover in the allotted pay period. The reason behind this is due to the false percentage rates given during a mortgage transaction by different lenders, coupled with the zero credit requirement perks offered to new homeowners. The irresponsibility — motivated by quick profit at the expense of livelihood’s, naturally — of such transactions on a massive scale eventually led to the grossest mismanagement of the free market since the Depression era; and as we all know, Alan Greenspan’s rhetoric wouldn’t be enough to turn the tides on a damning economic collapse. The government came together to bail us out, but that didn’t reverse the damage already inflicted upon the working class, millions of whom lost their jobs while the culprits of such misery walked away with fat checks and bonuses as “punishment.”
Christian Bale’s captivating turn as Burry is small but widely felt, his awkwardness palpable and gifted mind a winning lotto number that nobody with a functioning brain cashed in on. Bale’s random outbursts are alarming yet true to character, a rage that’s more than understandable given how stupidity was spreading through the American banking society like an unstoppable virus. Also on board for this game of “get-rich-while-your-friends-go-broke” is investment firm underling and hothead, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), the film’s fourth wall narrator who uses his opportunistic disposition to convince Baum and the guys at FrontPoint Partners to go along with Burry’s plan of betting against the subprime mortgages that corrupt investment companies are offering up like free food samples at the mall. Vinny Daniel (Jeremy Strong), Baum’s right-hand man, urges his boss to turn down this unprofitable proposition but soon comes to realize it’s better to stay on the side of a mad genius if it means less long term embarrassment. Elsewhere, two other hedge fund up-and-comers, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) mirror Burry’s scheme but must enlist the help of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a retired investment banker with billions in his backpocket just waiting to be spent. Pitt’s role is brief but largely satisfying, an Obi-Wan Kenobi type who mentors rising financial stars but cautions them about the downside of prosperity: there’s always a loser when you win.
Editor Hank Corwin does a stellar job interweaving all the story lines together, the separate parties of which never actually interact but are all partaking in the riskiest gamble of their lives. The Big Short is more Oceans 11 than anything else, a sting operation manned by outlandish and vastly different personalities who take genuine pleasure in skating as close to the edge of financial ruin as possible. Oh, if they only knew what poverty looked and felt like. The Big Short primarily doesn’t work because its subject is no laughing matter, which stops dead in its tracks any attempt at self-deprecating humor. What’s so funny about men who learn of a global problem and then don’t tell anyone who personally matters (the exception being Geller and Shipley — thank you, millennials!)? Yes, I know telling this story is necessary so that we can all be informed about how we were screwed over and whom by. But as a film whose operative is to entertain first and foremost, I’m not sure the flagrant shift in tone is the most effective way of educating America on its most recent travesties. McKay directs competently, and Carell is an Oscar lock so long as he is campaigned “supporting,” but the rest of this film is pretty much a trailer for a book I suspect offers much more pertinent information to the 2008 housing bubble crisis than what we’re given here: garish and flamboyant men bro-ing down while tacky cameos assist in putting all of this financial jargon in layman’s terms. Bottom line: The Big Short is watchable and occasionally throws a curveball of meaningfulness, but it’s mostly dead-set on conjuring laughter instead of anger or, better yet, open defiance.
The Big Short is being distributed by Paramount Pictures and will hit theaters nationwide beginning December 11th, 2015. Check out the trailer of AFI Fest 2015’s closing night gala…