When I first heard that Adam McKay was doing a movie about the 2008 financial crisis my initial reaction was one of confusion. The guy who does the dumb (but funny) Will Ferrell movies? And then I remembered 2010’s The Other Guys; a dumb Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg buddy cop comedy that midway through suddenly turns into a scathing indictment of the American financial system. McKay completes the film with the following credits animation, a savage but accurate series of facts, figures and charts that rips apart the big banks in the wake of the collapse of 2008.
It’s clear here that McKay really, really wants to talk about what happened that year. With The Big Short, it looks like he finally got his opportunity and as it turns out, he may actually be the best man for the job.
The Big Short is technically a comedy in that the events leading up to the housing market and subsequent financial collapse are so bafflingly ridiculous that seeing them laid out in front of you like this is downright hilarious. The film, based on the book of the same name, centers on the individuals who discovered that the housing market, and thus the mortgage-backed bonds banks had been making gobs of money off was destined to collapse. Being good enterprising Wall Street professionals, these people decide to use this information to make a lot of money. They buy shorts on the mortgage bonds (i.e. bets that the bonds will decrease in value). At the time it was a ridiculous notion because the bonds were backed by mortgages and the housing market never collapses! Right up until it did, of course.
There’s a lot of complicated Wall Street lingo here, but McKay smartly knows that the majority of the people viewing the film will have no idea what it means, so he uses celebrity cameos (including Margot Robbie in a bathtub) to explain the details in terms everyone can understand. I felt pretty familiar with the details that caused the great recession, but I still walked away from the film feeling like I had learned something. This is a movie that wants to teach you as much as entertain you.
And entertaining it is. The trick to making this movie work is hiring the right cast of characters. These guys have to both represent the good guys and be empathetic characters (after all, they predicted the collapse), while also still being the same schmucky Wall Street professionals that the movie rails against (after all, they chose to make money off of it). It’s a thin line that our characters skirt expertly. Christian Bale is good as the brilliant but socially awkward Michael Burry who originally found the signatures in the numbers that led to his prediction of the collapse. The performance is weird and uncomfortable most of the time, but you can tell that was the desired effect. Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert,a mentor to two young Wall Street upstarts who just so happened to stumble on the data validating the collapse. Ryan Gosling taps into his inner asshole to wonderfully portray a Jared Vennett Wall Street banker who both narrates the movie but also actively moves to make as much money as possible off of the backs of mortgage holders. The real standout, however, is Steve Carell as Mark Baum.
Baum is an angry fund manager whose personal tragedy has galvanized him against the Wall Street system. He believes the system is crooked, broken, and destroys people. He’s made it his mission to ferret out the bad people and actions within the big banks (while simultaneously working for one). When the predicted collapse of the housing market lands on his desk, to Baum it is merely vindication of what he already knew and he jumps at the opportunity to screw the banks over. Mark Baum is an incredibly complicated person and the movie does a great job of showing this, having Baum constantly wrestle with his hatred of the system, and the fact that shorting the bond market kind of makes him part of it. Carell’s performance shows the skills he has as actor, playing the emotional complexities of Baum perfectly. Shifting between anger and grief, but always with a throughline of humor, Carrell is doing masterful work here. Don’t pay attention to the weird uneven performance of last year’s Foxcatcher, this is Carrell at his best.
It’s also director Adam McKay at his best. I mentioned earlier that I thought maybe McKay might have been the perfect man to tell this story, and I really mean it. His direction here is wonderful. McKay’s history in comedies is obvious as he very clearly understands how to construct and pace a scene for the biggest laughs. What’s so shocking is that he can make us laugh while simultaneously making us angry. McKay shoots the film as if it was a documentary, mostly using handheld cameras (or at least making camera moves designed to resemble handheld) and having the actors constantly look straight at the lense, directly addressing the audience. The result is that we never forget that this is a true story; despite the A-list actors and heightened drama the film always feels real.
And that makes you angry. Really angry. I left The Big Short furious at the system that valued greed over all else. Furious at the lessons that seemingly weren’t learned and the bailout that was sadly necessary. McKay chooses to show everyone involved in the system; from the mortgage brokers, to the bankers, the bond rating agencies, and the government agencies as scum who either didn’t understand the impact of what they were doing or just didn’t care.
The Big Short is an uneven film, but it’s a film that works in spite of that unevenness. There’s a shift in tone between funny and dramatic scenes that I don’t think McKay really nails. His strength is in comedies after all. Regardless, I believe the movie accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s entertaining, funny, and informative. Adam McKay has been really pissed off for a while and he wanted to make a movie to show you exactly why. He has succeeded. And now I’m pissed off, too.