Adam McKay capped off his 2010 absurdist comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell with an out-of-field infographic featuring the numerics on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme, bailout statistics and insulting ratios between executive and average employee compensation. A strangely politicized move at the time, especially considering chasing the heels of a movie where ho bos band together to have coitus in a Prius, but one that makes sense in the context of McKay’s star-studded passion project The Big Short.
For years, the official legalese of the 2008 housing market meltdown and subsequent implosion of the US (then world) economy was that it was too difficult for the hoi polloi to understand. Those who watched Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, narrated with gusto by Matt Damon, saw too how even the professionals who were supposed to know this business back and forward were iffy on what exactly happened and why. This was in part due to insider nomenclature intended to make outsiders and fools of anyone not in the know. In short, the system was rigged and the American people paid the ultimate price for it. What McKay has done with The Big Short is strip back the industry BS like a hunter carving a fresh kill and made a feature-friendly version of an enraging infographic, complete with Margo Robbie in a bubble bath helping to explain the trickier concepts.
Whereas Inside Job did a great job of untying the intricate knots of deception by educating and calling viewers to arms, McKay takes a decidedly different approach with The Big Short. In large part, this stems from his comedic stride, one that he does not abandon here. After all, the man had literally only made outrageous Will Ferrell comedies before stepping into the directorial shoes of The Big Short. For a guy whose resume is comprised of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys and Anchorman 2, McKay approaches this titanic topic with some pep in his step, casting light where there is only darkness. His approach can be appreciated both for its consumer-friendly appeal (which in turn leads more people to view it and therefore be educated by it) and for its willing ability to engage. We’re dealing with tectonic political and social issues but they never feel overwhelming or didactic.
The scene is set as Michael Burry M.D. (Christian Bale), an unconventional investment trader with a nose for a good bet, sniffs out a discrepancy in the housing market. According to the film, Burry’s the first to identify the existence of the housing bubble. At least from the outside looking in. As Burry, Bale shuffles around a fluorescent-caked office shoeless and listening to death metal, peering suspiciously at his board members through a glass eye that has always kept him at a distance from his peers. Burry races to various investment firms around the City that Never Sleeps where he whips up a whole new kind of derivative investment – one betting against the historically rock solid housing market.It isn’t long before Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s deal and, upon investigating for himself the house of cards upon which many of the pre-meltdown loans were built, seeks to recruit other partners to bet against the system. This brings him to Mark Baum (a standout Steve Carell), the closest thing The Big Short has to a lead. Baum is a weathered investment banker who left the big firms to carve out a more consciously-minded enterprise of his own. Carell plays the part as a conscientious sociopath, a raving moral center in a fire sale of corruption and greed. He doesn’t parlay with social niceties, he cuts to the point. McKay’s film is the kind of movie that chimes in (Gosling narrates with sleazy charm) to tell you what actually happened and where things are being embellished. It’s a cutesy gag but one that those questioning the theatrics of “true stories” may appreciate.
The language gets more and more technical as we delve into the issues of CDOS (collateralized debt obligations), subprime (read shit) loans and screwy ratings agencies but fear not, Anthony Bordain is on the scene to help simplify things with a chowder metaphor. And this is precisely where The Big Short thrives; as concepts become increasingly difficult to decipher (as they’re meant to), he doesn’t quite hold your hand through the mess but he tries to make it as comprehensible and, quite frankly, thrilling as possible. We know that the eventual collapse of the economy is inevitable but the road there is riddled with anxiety and, often, rich, poignant laughs.
As McKay tries to lubricate his daunting material to make it as easily consumable as possible, he fits quick edits and random asides in almost as frequently as Will Ferrell slipped non-sequiturs into the rest of McKay’s filmography. It makes for a rapid fire experience, one veering this way and that, not afraid to take tangents, but always for the sake of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The scenes never feel stuffy and academic, they feel light, almost peppy, with natural light flooding into the sets; lighting that’s aptly symmetric to McKay spotlighting the issue at hand. The result is admirable and engaging: a strange smoothie of important financial drama and hilarious knee slappers.
The jaw-dropping cast doesn’t end with Carrell as Brad Pitt also co-stars as retired investor Ben Rickert and Marisa Tomei and Melissa Leo also grab limited roles that prove underwhelming and thinly written. Each performance though is crafted with care, regardless of how much screen time they get, although sometimes the characters don’t quite get the full arc they deserve. But this is what happens when you cram a movie with up to eight main characters, each of whom you become invested in like a predatory CDO pusher. Still, the end product is a wowing, enraging and thoughtful examination of an issue that desperately needed light cast upon it.
CONCLUSION: Adam McKay’s star-filled ‘The Big Short’ tackles a huge subject, the 2008 financial meltdown, with surprising wit and clarity. That it ends up being both educational and entertaining is a great victory, making McKay’s first drama an American movie that all Americans should be required to see.