“I’m guessing most of you still don’t really know what happened.”
There is absolutely nothing funny about the financial crisis of 2008. Besides the fact that the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble led to the failure of countless businesses and a disastrous decline in consumer wealth, the crisis involved key phrases like “credit default swap” and “collateralized debt obligation.” Those terms are much more likely to make your eyes glaze over in boredom or confusion than they are to inspire laughs. The Big Short cannily recognizes this challenge and crafts a farcical, incisive narrative about a small group of outcasts who saw the whole thing coming.
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
The Big Short opens with this famous quote from Mark Twain, which is a somewhat more aggressive tweak on the notion that “ignorance is bliss.” In other words, it’s not so much that analysts and the population as a whole didn’t know a housing market collapse was coming; it’s that they were absolutely certain such a thing wasn’t even possible…because it had never happened before. The “heroes” of this story are the few who begged to differ.
Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a brilliant, anti-social neurologist-turned-hedge fund manager who recognizes signs of the imminent housing market collapse as early as 2005 and decides to bet big on it. (Much to the chagrin of his dumbfounded investors.) Burry’s odd buying patterns are noticed by Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a brash trader at Deutsche Bank who has an insider’s perspective on some of the skulduggery within financial institutions. Vennett tries to profit himself, but the only person who will even entertain his proposal is Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an abrasive and outspoken hedge fund manager who is chronically distrustful of, well, everything. There’s also Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), a pair of upstarts who started a hedge fund in their garage and discover the upcoming calamity. To capitalize on their knowledge, they enlist the help of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, also a producer), a comically paranoid former trader who is loathe to get back in the game.
“Truth is like poetry. And most people f—ing hate poetry.”
I never read the book this film is based on — Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” — so I can’t say for sure if the above paragraph accurately describes how these real-life characters are connected to each other. (Except for Burry, all of the key players’ names have been changed for the movie.) The good news is that, unlike the financial institutions demonized in this film, The Big Short is gleefully transparent about its intentions. As a result, the film regularly breaks the fourth wall, including the moment where Wittrock’s character informs us that he and his partner didn’t really have their eureka moment while pitifully sitting in a lobby together.
At first glance, having Adam McKay (best known for Anchorman and Step Brothers) direct a movie about the financial crisis seems like a curious, left-field choice. However, the broad, absurdist streak McKay brought to those comedies serves this potentially dry subject matter extremely well. The camera work by Barry Ackroyd is often as wonky as the shady dealings on screen. More importantly, McKay, who also co-wrote the script with Charles Randolph, seems to sense when audiences might be getting lost in a morass of “default rates” and “subprime mortgages” and tosses in gratuitously eye-catching interludes to liven up the proceedings. One of them features a sexy starlet in a bubble bath, while another pairs a pop star with an economist to explain “synthetic CDOs.” I have to say: the tactic works rather well and fits in with all the other ridiculousness on display.
The silliness includes some outrageous hairstyles, which is one of several reasons this movie reminded me of American Hustle. (Coincidentally, “American Hustle” could easily be an alternate title for The Big Short.) Bale once again has to rock an unfortunate ‘do here. And since Burry also has a glass eye and Asperger’s Syndrome, Bale gets to indulge in a number of actorly quirks that prove useful considering he spends 90 percent of his screen time locked in his office. Still, the most effective part of Bale’s performance is the guileless confidence he brings in the face of fierce skepticism. At first Carell’s shrill, shouty performance is a little off-putting. By the end, however, all of the yelling and indignation doesn’t just feel justified…it feels like the only appropriate reaction.
Gosling is glibly funny, but his character eventually stands apart from the somewhat serious tone the film adopts in its latter half. Meanwhile, Pitt (who previously produced and starred in Moneyball, which was also based on another seemingly un-filmable Michael Lewis book) is solid, but mostly here to bring some star power to the section of the film that is lacking it. There are other strong performances here; I enjoyed the profane camaraderie of Baum’s team (played by Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, and Rafe Spall), and Melissa Leo turns up for one scene as a corrupt S&P executive who literally turns a blind eye to mortgage bond instability. However, other talented performers (like Marisa Tomei and Karen Gillan) feel tossed-in and vastly overqualified, which undermines the fine work done to streamline a complicated narrative.
The film doesn’t dig quite as deep as the subject matter demands; the human cost of the financial collapse is mostly abstract, and the blame is placed squarely on diabolical financial institutions. And while I wouldn’t quite say that we end up rooting for global financial ruin so these characters can succeed, we are definitely invested.
In the end, I have to commend the filmmakers for pulling off an extremely difficult task — making the financial collapse funny, accessible, and fascinating — with aplomb. As a result, The Big Short has a chance to become the definitive film about one of the gloomiest chapters in recent history.