As evidenced by recent releases such as Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, and even this year’s 99 Homes, movies about the financial market can be risky, complicated beasts. There’s always a scene that boils down to metaphors or “explain this to me like I’m a child.” The Big Short, writer/director Adam McKay’s absolute roast of the 2007 housing market collapse, follows suit but does so with so much energy, cynicism, and raw anger that the end result is a crackling, live entertainment that elicits as many laughs as jaws agape that this could happen. Some guy in a suit doesn’t explain it to you. That’d be far too traditional. McKay knows you’ll only listen to Margot Robbie in a bathtub, so that’s what we get. The whole movie is like that.
Based upon Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the film follows four market insiders/outsiders. The key player is Michael Burry (Bale), a former doctor turned fund manager. By actually looking at the details of subprime mortgages being backed by the big banks, Burry discovers in 2005 a large portion will default when the adjustable rates take effect – the second quarter of 2007. Of course no one believes him except fellow fund manager Mark Baum (Carell), who’s been lamenting the corruption he’s seen in the markets for years. Also in on the knowledge is slick banker Jared Vennett, who’s ready to cash in on something no one sees coming. After stumbling upon Burry’s frantic predictions, former Wall Street big whig Ben Rickert (Pitt) sees an opportunity to get two young up-and-comers (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) in on the action.
McKay, working with co-writer Charles Randolph, strikes pay dirt by taking something truly awful (the crisis cost millions their homes, jobs, and way of life) and not only educating, but presenting the whole thing with fierceness and cunning satire. He’s not necessarily talking down to his audience by having Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez explain the finer points of the meltdown. He cynically knows it’s the only way most will listen. The Big Short is still heavy on market jargon and acronyms, but they’re explained succinctly enough to get the jist of what caused the disaster and how little has been done since to prevent it from happening again. Most people believe the markets are a rigged casino and check out from there. The Big Short basically confirms that, but brings us in to the madness is such an accessible and entertaining way that it’s impossible not to care – even though we know the outcome.
The Big Short features an absolutely stacked cast, all of whom are excellent. Given how many characters the film showcases, it’s difficult for anyone to stick out from the crowd. Carell excels as the high-strung Baum, darting around New York City on his cell phone and simultaneously happy and sad that his prediction is coming true. Carell really brings out the conscience in Baum’s character, which contributes greatly to the movie hitting home for the average viewer. Bale, as the eccentric and barefoot Burry, embodies the doomsday predictor who’s laughed out of the meeting room. This is not the deadly serious Bale we’re used to seeing. He plays the deadpan comedy very well. Pitt and Gosling shine in smaller roles, particularly Pitt in an appearance so grounded it’s easy to believe his character got out of the game before Wall Street became an insidious roulette wheel.
The Big Short is about as reachable a film as there is on such an in-depth and complicated topic. McKay’s balancing act of explaining then making fun of what happened while issuing dire warnings that the atmosphere is ripe for a repeat is potent and very skillful. It’s a passionate, cutthroat takedown of a corrupt system that’s rigged against the common person. Somehow, we leave the theater frightened, enraged, and with a slight grin.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 130 Minutes
Rating: R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.
Theatrical Release: December 11, 2015 (Limited) / December 23, 2015 (Wide)
Directed by: Adam McKay
Written by: Adam McKay & Charles Randolph. Based upon the book by Michael Lewis.
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei