Adam McKay’s acidic housing market farce has energy to burn, but doesn’t always know where to aim it.
Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.
The primary objective of The Big Short, its reason for existing, is outrage. And on that level it unquestionably succeeds, as it’s impossible to walk away from this high-strung, morally queasy story of a group of hedge fund managers who made a lot of money betting against a system doomed to failure and not feel some level of anger.
I suppose that makes it the perfect film for 2015, a year that above all others has seemed driven by the whirring social media machines that feed on our irrepressible rage. There is no event that happens anywhere in the world without backlash from some quadrant of the internet, and then backlash to that backlash from somewhere equally forlorn. But whether it’s directed towards issues like racial injustice or gun violence, immigration or the environment, it only leaves you embittered and exhausted. Why? Because nothing ever really changes. The Big Short aims to tap into that frustration, detailing the economic collapse of 2008 through the eyes of those who know that even if they’re right, it’s still a truly awful thing. You’ll laugh, because these are funny actors working for a funny director, but only to keep from screaming.
The ensemble cast includes Christian Bale, playing a shoeless, air-drumming doctor-turned-money manager named Michael Burry; he analyzes some charts and sees the housing bubble about to burst, so he does the unthinkable: buys a billion dollars worth of “swaps” effectively betting against the banks’ sub-prime mortgage scheme. Everyone thinks he’s a fool — the housing market has always been stable! — and his clients begin to panic, but he holds firm to his hypothesis. Then, a skeevy Morgan Chase exec named Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) gets wind of what Burry’s up to, but instead of blowing a whistle, he wants in on the action. The race is on to swindle the banks out of the money they’re swindling from regular people before the system collapses.
Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), another hedge fund manager, only needs to meet a few loan officers face to face to realize that every single one of them is either a criminal or a moron. A pair of young investors, Geller and Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Witrock), take the scheme one step further by betting against mortgage packages that are “A” rated, after discovering that even those are full of crap. On and on it goes, and it’s only until Geller & Shipley’s mentor Ben (Brad Pitt, once again playing the moral compass in a film he’s producing) reminds them that millions of people will lose their homes and their jobs, so please stop dancing, that the real moral implications actually get considered.
But first, director/co-writer Adam McKay (working from Michael Lewis’s best-selling book) really wants to make sure you understand it all. Or, if not all, at least enough. There’s enough financial gobbledegook baked into the script to make you wonder if this is actually a foreign film, an alphabet soup of SPMs and CDOs and Triple-As and Single-Bs, all adding up to Very Bad, No Good Things for the global economy. When a concept is too complicated to simply have Gosling explain it directly to the camera, instead we’ll cut to Anthony Bourdain in his kitchen, or Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, and we get the point illustrated to us like the children we are.
Apparently, the financial sector gets so much of its power by inventing a lexicon to make things sound more official — or good, or legal — than they are. A visit with a couple of bank reps in Florida, who have been handing out mortgages like candy because they know they’ll get paid ridiculous fees whether the new homeowners can afford them or not, painfully brings into to focus just how corrupt the system is. Mark Baum’s team gets increasingly rattled the further down the rabbit hole they go: “I don’t understand, why did they just confess?” Baum wonders after one reveal. “They’re not confessing…they’re bragging,” his colleague replies. The realization at the film’s end that when the dust settled no American executive served any jail time and Congress enacted absolutely no reform, and the banks are still doing the exact same thing, is enough to make you give up on capitalism entirely.
Adam McKay’s direction — previously limited just to Will Ferrell comedies — is as active as his characters; zooms and focus changes are frequent and often seemingly unmotivated, as is the film’s penchant for marking passage of time with quick-cut montages of current American culture. Characters are often cut off in mid-sentence from one scene to the next, as if McKay is furiously overcompensating for the innate dullness of a film about high finance by throwing enough shiny things and attractive people on the screen to keep us engaged.
I wish he had a little more faith in his audience; The Big Short covers similar ground to J.C. Chandor’s fantastic Margin Call, but from the other side of the windows. There, an unnamed banking Goliath (come on, it was Lehman Brothers) saw the train bearing down and tried to scramble out of the way. Here, as in a dark mirror, we learn the painfully true story of the men who saw the train first leaving the station, months before anyone else. It’s just as talky, and just as cynical, but The Big Short‘s over-caffeinated energy at times distracts from the legitimately important story it’s trying to tell. There’s an obvious compassion for “regular” Americans here, only visualized in a couple of scenes, but you probably know someone affected by the recession and only need to think of them.
Despite any issues of style, there’s not a weak note hit amongst the cast; Bale is reliably unhinged, Carrell slowly turns a one-note boor into a righteous crusader grappling with his own hypocrisy; Gosling oozes shameless ego (I loved how he verbally smacks down his lapdog assistant) as much as Pitt radiates level-headed calm. All of these men make themselves a ton of money, but none of them (save Gosling’s Vennett, naturally) end up feeling all that great about it. They were right, but the implications — that America’s financial institutions are rotten to the very core, but they’ll keep getting away with it through incompetency and tax breaks — are frightening. I have to recommend The Big Short at least for educational purposes; it’ll make you choke on your popcorn, and not always by laughing.