As audience members, we tend to describe sensitive and idealistic works as “passionate”, ignoring that the genesis of passion can also come out of pure, unadulterated, rage.
That’s what we’re looking at with Adam McKay’s The Big Short, adapted from Michael Lewis’ book of the same name. McKay’s hatred of the financial industry for the 2007 financial crisis has been clear since the end credits sequence of his film The Other Guys, and now he has a full two hours to expound upon it. Refusing to compromise and unafraid to point fingers, The Big Short’s primary drive is a bitterness and palpable vitriol rarely seen in a major studio production, and that makes it one of the best films of the year.
It’s difficult to explain the plot of The Big Short without having to explain the causes of the financial crisis, since that explanation is indeed the entire point of the film. The film follows three unrelated groups in 2005 who predict the incoming financial crisis and try to find ways to profit from it. The initial predictions come from awkward, likely autistic, hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Berry (Christian Bale) who creates a “credit swap” market, which is essentially a bet against the housing market. This confusing behavior angers Berry’s bosses and investors, and eventually word gets around to banking-bro Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). Vennett partners with a firm led by the hot-headed Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to place the same bets. Meanwhile, rookie investors Jamie Shipley (John Magaro) and Charlie Geller (Finn Wittrock) also stumble on Dr. Berry’s theories, but lack the cache to make the necessary trades, so they must enlist cynical retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
Although the characters and story are compelling, they’re secondary to the information presented.
Essentially, The Big Short doubles as the documentary about the financial industry that Adam McKay probably wanted to make, but knew no one would watch. Gosling serves as our guide here, occasionally Zach-Morris-time-stopping the film to explain what actually happened and what was dramatized. In order to explain some of the more confusing statements and technical banking terms, McKay inserts segments hosted by celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez. It’s effective and always funny, but it doesn’t work half as well as just having Gosling break it down himself. Gosling’s command of the screen and direct straightforward manner are reminiscent of Alec Baldwin’s short role in Glengarry Glen Ross, while revolving entirely around the folly of people like that character.
Even though these characters’ stories are all similar, there’s still a lot of complexity to each individual character’s approach. There are varying degrees to which each of them know or care what their success means to average citizens, and this is where Carell shines. Carell plays Mark Baum as a relative idealist who uses his rage at the system as a defense mechanism to keep from dealing with his brother’s suicide. Baum is the much-needed moral center for this film, covering the wide gamut of audience emotions, and his feelings of hypocrisy and guilt play well off Gosling’s self-involvement. It helps that his section features a strong team of charismatic supporting actors including Rafe Spall and Jeremy Strong, who bolster what should have felt like throwaway scenes. Particularly effective is a sequence where Carell’s team visit abandoned neighborhoods in Florida, managing to cover the same ground as 99 Homes in a more effective and engaging manner.
It’s impressive that while expressing his anger, McKay doesn’t give up his sense of humor. In fact, it seems to be a strength as he builds through scenarios and statements which slowly start to seem as fantastical and implausible as the Anchorman fight sequence. McKay’s fast-paced direction is at once calculated and chaotic, a very polished attempt at looking unpolished. In some scenes, he’s using literally every tool at his disposal to build a moment, incorporating laugh tracks, e-mail notification pings, heavy metal music, and hidden shots of upside-down American flags. In others, he’s confident to give Ryan Gosling a visual aid and let his actors take the wheel. This is what comes from years of comedy directing, as McKay clearly understands how pacing can make or break a scene. This is an opportunity for him to stretch his legs beyond the constraints of semi-improvised comedy, and he takes it.
The Big Short is gutsy filmmaking on all levels, from subject to execution.
At its best, it is a powerhouse of sound design and performance. In its worst moments, it’s still the best teaching tool imaginable for an issue everyone knows about and few understand. McKay and company unashamedly lay their agenda out on the line for all to see, and manage to remain entertaining instead of preachy. The Big Short combines charisma, talent, and righteous rage to build up the most important film ever to be destined for senior Economics classes.Liked This? Share It!