Does the revelation that the American financial system is a complete fraud, a rigged game, go down smoother if the message is delivered in the form of a zany mockumentary-style comedy? Director Adam McKay thinks so. The Saturday Night Live alum, whose film work includes outlandish comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, brings his trademark screwball style to the inside story of the economic crash of 2008. While the wacky comedy is firmly in place, The Big Short is also a departure for McKay, dealing with some very serious themes like what happens to the rest of us when members of the elite financial system decide to treat the economy like it's a casino. McKay’s sensibilities are a little too over the top for the story he wants to tell, but the director shows great promise at blending comedy and drama.
There’s an obvious comparison to be made to Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street. That film dealt with an unscrupulous financial wizard who broke all the rules to make himself a millionaire, and it also uses hyper stylized action and outlandish comedy to tell its story. The reason Wolf works better than The Big Short is because each movie’s goal is different. The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t overly concerned with making the audience understand how Jordan Belfort went about gaming the system. It’s simply a tale of his excesses. The amped up, jittery aesthetic works splendidly to telegraph those excesses. In The Big Short, McKay wants to inform his audience about what went wrong, and he wants us to become angry at the lack of accountability in the aftermath of the crash. The fidgety style McKay employs, while wildly entertaining, distracts from his goals.
The Big Short is based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 book about the housing and credit bubbles that burst in 2008, causing a financial collapse of epic proportions. Lewis also wrote Moneyball, an examination of Billy Beane, the MLB general manager who relies solely on statistical minutiae for decisions when putting his teams together. That book was turned into a movie in 2011. It’s a testament to Lewis’ writing that he can drill down into subjects like credit default swaps and sabermetrics, topics that in less-talented hands could be major snooze fests, and have Hollywood interested in turning those analyses into major motion pictures. Lewis probes these ideas by finding the colorful characters connected to them, and he creates a narrative on par with the best fictional storytelling.
It’s a testament to the skillsets of the filmmakers that the movie adaptations of those two books could be so different in tone. Moneyball certainly has comedic moments, but that Bennett Miller film plays as a dramatic David vs. Goliath tale about the financially strapped Oakland A’s beating the big money teams at their own game. In Adam McKay’s The Big Short, the colorful characters are eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), another eccentric hedge fund manager named Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and the disillusioned financial market burnout Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). Three of those names (Vennett, Baum, and Rickert) are completely fictional, and their characters are merely based on real life counterparts in Lewis’ book, even though a title card at the beginning tells us the movie is based on a true story.
Gosling’s Vennett is based on the man who realized the entire economy was a rickety house of cards, and was determined to make a profit when that house finally came crashing down. Vennett breaks the fourth wall to give exposition directly to the audience about how the markets work. It’s a system that is purposefully opaque, so as to make it easier to hide malfeasance, and I give credit to McKay’s unique attempt at making it comprehensible. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work.
The device he uses is to have Vennett introduce celebrities who will explain things in a more compelling way, because, well, everybody loves celebrities. Famous chef Anthony Bourdain explains the big bank’s strategy for repackaging and selling toxic mortgages to other institutions. Actress Selena Gomez shows us the labyrinthine system of traders making bets on the outcomes of market fluctuations, as well as the bets other traders make on the original bets. These hyperactive asides come close to being obnoxious. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph assume the only way the average joe will pay attention long enough to understand how collateralized debt obligations work is if it’s explained by actress Margot Robbie while in a bath tub.
These quick cuts out of the main narrative are a perfect example of the ADD-like aesthetic of The Big Short. It’s distracting, but not enough to completely detract from the compelling story and excellent performances at the heart of the movie. Steve Carell’s rage prone Mark Baum gives real pathos to the film, as a man who wants to do the right thing. He believes his initial big bet on a stock market crash will wake people up to the rotten nature of the system, but he doesn’t realize how institutionalized the fraud has become. Initially, his underlings aren’t as wary of profiting from other people’s misfortunes. There is a devastating and demoralizing scene late in the film when Baum visits a representative of Standard and Poor’s (aka, the S&P) where he finally sees the top to bottom corruption of the system. Particularly poignant are scenes of Baum’s employees traveling to investigate the countless abandoned houses and the families who were left homeless in the wake of easy credit with explosive interest rates.
Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert is a financial master who couldn’t stomach the ugliness of the system, but he is convinced by two brash young friends to help them profit off that system. Rickert delivers an admonition to his two protégés when they want to celebrate after they realize their bets on an economic collapse will finally pay off. It’s a sobering reminder that real people are hurt when Wall Street behaves as if they are playing with Monopoly money.
The Big Short is a good movie that could have been great. If Adam McKay had reigned in his instincts to go as big and broad with the comedy as possible, the moral of the story would have landed with greater impact. Wall Street is gambling with the life savings of millions of people, and it has bribed Washington to do nothing about it. In that kind of climate, those who manipulate the system will thrive. The Big Short showcases a few of those people in an entertaining, funny way. It isn’t the most effective way to teach the audience how it happened, though, or as a call to action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- All of the drama and most of the comedy in The Big Short works. It's the unfocused and hyper style that makes what could have been great into good.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There is a piece of the score that is uniquely realized. It involves making a beat and rhythm out of mouse clicks. It really works, and it instantly put me in mind of a similar piece of music from the movie Amelie, where an old-fashioned typewriter is used as an instrument.