There is absolutely no way this movie should work. The 2008 economic meltdown is not well-understood to begin with, and making a big Hollywood movie about something that most people don’t understand just doesn’t seem feasible. And to make it a comedy…? Filmmakers who have approached the subject so far have tried various, predictable approaches, like a documentary (“Inside Job”) or a drama (“Margin Call”). Director Adam McKay, best known for helming a number of Will Ferrell movies (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” “Step Brothers,” “The Other Guys”), has taken another tack altogether. “The Big Short” is a post-modernist farce, fueled by Red Bull.
And it works. McKay may have seemed like an unlikely choice for this material, but his freewheeling style, coupled with the script’s scathing wit and boisterous irreverence, mirror the indignation and contempt the audience is likely to feel for the banker’s gray pinstripe establishment that engineered this disaster in the first place.
Based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis (who also wrote “Moneyball”), “The Big Short” traces the events leading up to the 2008 economic collapse as seen through the eyes of a small handful of people who saw it coming and figured out a way to make money off it. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a physician who isn’t practicing medicine, but is working as a high level financial advisor and investor. Burry is clearly brilliant, but lacks any semblance of social graces, which he traces to his having a glass eye resulting from a childhood accident. Subprime mortgages have been bundled by the thousands into highly rated investment products. While working barefoot in shorts (apparently unusual even in California) with death metal blaring in his office, Burry does something no one else has bothered to do and actually reads the mortgages making up these investment products that are fueling the banking industry. Realizing that many of these adjustable rate mortgages have been issued to lousy credit risks and are on the verge of going belly up, Burry then commits huge sums of his investors’ money into credit default swaps, essentially gambling on the collapse of the housing industry. Who knew you could take out an insurance policy on a financial product in which you have no insurable interest?
If any of that sounds confusing, fear not. “The Big Short” is determined to make sure you understand it, and is determined that you be entertained as you are educated. Ryan Gosling, as foul-mouthed Wall Street whiz Jared Vennett, the movie’s de facto narrator, uses a Jenga tower as a visual aid, and it works. He also periodically breaks the fourth wall to introduce guest stars, like Margot Robbie, sipping champagne naked in a bubble bath, to explain some of the terms and concepts in layman’s terms. It should take you right the hell out of the movie, but somehow it doesn’t. This movie about outsiders finding ways around the rules makes it own rules, and profits by it hugely.
Gosling is both slimy and seductive as Vennett, adding another notch to his chameleon skin gun belt. Is there no type he can’t effectively play? Also populating this extremely fast-paced and busy movie are Steve Carell, as Mark Baum, a cynical and disenchanted Wall Streeter who sees the chance to similarly bet against the banks as a way to express his contempt for the big banks – although he technically works for one of them. Finn Wittrock and John Magaro play two likeable upstarts who get wind of the impending catastrophe, and enlist the help of a startlingly grizzled Brad Pitt, as their guru, a brilliant but paranoid financial wizard who’s endeavoring to get as completely off the grid as possible before disaster strikes. (Pitt, who produced and starred in “Moneyball,” another Michael Lewis adaptation, also co-produces here.)
Like a small number of historically based movies, “All the President’s Men” and “Lincoln” come to mind, “The Big Short” successfully wrings suspense out of events we already know the outcome to. When Baum sends his young assistants to Florida to personally check out some suspect mortgages, they interview some successful young mortgage brokers who candidly describe the shortcuts and loopholes they use to qualify bad credit risks for mortgages.
“Why is he confessing?” one of Baum’s assistants asks the other.
His partner explains it easily: “He’s bragging.”
The odd quandary this movie presents us with is that while we root for our main characters – we want Burry and Baum to be proven right, we want Vennett to get bragging rights, we want the upstarts to hit paydirt – we are also rooting for millions of innocent people to lose their shirts. Movies don’t present with honest-to-God moral complexities all that often, and even less often do they make them entertaining. When it’s done, you’re likely to feel like your brain hurts, accompanied by a sense of outrage at the banking and securities industries that let this happen. (As the movie points out, they’re back at the same old games, just with different names on the products.) “The Big Short” is practically an incitement to riot, but it’s an awfully entertaining one.
“The Big Short” opens Wednesday, December 23rd, at theaters across the Capital District including: the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX and the Spectrum 8 on Delaware Avenue in Albany.