The financial meltdown of 2007-08 has gotten screen treatment before, but most of the movies about it have been intensely serious, even if they had moments of bleak humor. By contrast Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” based on the book by Michael Lewis, is a raucous, flat-out ensemble farce that skewers the Wall Street establishment whose excesses triggered the collapse and ruined so many lives, while it riotously celebrates the few oddballs who, foreseeing what was going to happen, took advantage of their insight to make a fortune. At the same time, however, it despairs over anybody’s ability to make a fortune out of such terrible human carnage.
In essence the movie addresses, on a much broader canvas, the housing bubble that was at the center of the disaster (and was dealt with on a microcosmic level in “99 Houses”). It begins with Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the seemingly wacked-out head of a hedge fund who’s actually a genius numbers-cruncher. Looking over the content of the mortgage bonds being sold at high prices by big firms, he concludes that they’re stuffed with risky sub-prime home loans that are headed for default, and so elects to plow his capital into credit default swaps that, like shorts in the stock options market, bet that their value will plummet. Since his ideas are so off-the-wall, the firms are more than willing to let him dig himself as deep a financial hole as he wants; they’re sure his wager is a fool’s gambit.
Even at this early stage in the story, McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph are well aware that the financial arcana could mystify viewers or, worse, put them to sleep. So they introduce a deliciously devious ways of explaining matters. Occasionally onscreen texts are graphics are employed, but often a celebrity will be inserted to offer an explanation in layman’s terms: in one instance, chef Anthony Bourdain interrupts to describe CODs—collateralized debt obligations, which toss together loans of dubious individual worth, into supposedly valuable packages—as a stew into which leftover bits of yesterday’s fish have been scooped. Or Selena Gomez turns up in a casino to call them the equivalent of betting on the person making a bet. It’s a tactic that mostly works, though of course it can’t eliminate all the obscurity; and realizing that he still has to keep things moving, McKay also utilizes lightning-fast montages of pop culture ephemera to remind us of the stuff people were fiddling away their time on while they were obliviously edging toward financial ruin, all the while trying to snare a share of a boom they thought would never end.
The picture adds characters, too—a whole slew of them. One is shark-like banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who gets wind of Burry’s ploy, is persuaded that it’s correct, and searches for hedge fund money he can partner with to take advantage of the opportunity. Vennett becomes the film’s narrator, adding a stream of snarky, self-important explanation to the charts and celebrity intrusions. He also becomes the connecting link with Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an extremely excitable fund manager who’s eventually persuaded that the ice beneath the market is about to crack (especially after he goes into the field to talk with clueless real-estate agents, home buyers and even external ratings specialists) and emulates Burry’s investment tactics. Further down the food chain are Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), a pair of very small fry with grandiose dreams, who accidentally stumble on Burry’s scheme and persuade Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, almost unrecognizable with shaggy hair and beard), a former Wall Street master who’s spurned the system, to help them snatch some of the action.
As “The Big Short” careens from one of these plot threads to another (all of them, note, man-centered; the few females on tap—Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan—make only fleeting appearances), confusion over the details, as well as more than a hint of exasperation, can set in. It’s difficult, for instance, to understand what’s happening in the final reel, when—as the entire financial system is collapsing—our outliers are calculating when and where to sell their credit default swaps. We’re told that they could lose everything if their timing is off, but exactly why and how will remain opaque to most viewers, even though the ploy delivers a generalized sense of excitement.
The failure to connect is accentuated by the fact that the characters remain sketches rather than fully-rounded people, the most complex of them being Carell’s Baum—a fictionalized name—who is at least given fragments of a backstory. That sort of thinness is generally the case in satire, of course, but here it’s made more problematic because the ostensible heroes of the story are all just as greedy as their marks, only occasionally being brought short by the realization that the rewards will come at a horrible cost to millions of real people. There’s mention toward the close about how destructive the shenanigans of the Wall Street impresarios were, and how little punishment was meted out to the perpetrators (once again, it’s Carell’s Baum who expresses the greatest empathy for those caught up in the system’s schemes). But like “Dr. Strangelove,” another black comedy about a human catastrophe, McKay’s film deals in caricature, which creates a distancing effect.
Within those limits, however, this is a strong cast, with Carell playing to the rafters, Bale relishing Burry’s weirdness and Gosling oozing venom with a lizard-like smile. The supporting cast maintains a high energy level, and so does the production team, with a special nod to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and editor Hank Corwin, who help keep things zipping along at a good clip while also maintaining as much clarity as the complicated business allows.
“The Big Short” is a surprise from McKay, whose earlier work, mostly with his buddy Will Ferrell, was on a much less exalted plane. Smart and manic, it might leave you more with a bit of a queasiness and exhaustion rather than the outrage it’s aiming for, but at least it doesn’t stiff you.