Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
“The truth is like poetry, and most people fucking hate poetry.”
Director Adam McKay has been involved in a lot of great movies (Anchorman, Sleeping With Other People) and also some not-so-great movies (Get Hard, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters). The Big Short falls under the category of “great movies,” with amazing performances, fantastic pacing, and a crucial storyline. In the US housing market crash of 2007, many people lost their homes and their jobs – and that’s about the extent of what most people know about the crisis. The Big Short manages to explain the details of it through intriguing subplots, which is one reason that the film is a huge success.
The film follows four key figures who predict the collapse of the housing bubble. Dr. Michael Burry (Bale), the founder of a Scion Capitol hedge fund, makes the original prediction of the failure, and a bank trader named Jared Vennett (Gosling) is quick to catch on. Finally, Mark Baum (Carell), an eccentric hedge fund manager at Morgan Stanley, also realizes the impending collapse of the bubble, as does former investment player Ben Rickert (Pitt). These four men decide to do something unheard of – they “short” (bet against) the housing market.
Adam McKay makes a lot of unusual, yet well-thought decisions as director and one of the writers. When talking about big banking terms like “credit default swap” and “collateralized debt obligation,” the average audience member will find himself lost in confusion. McKay’s solution to this problem is to have Jared, who narrates most of the film, present some celebrity cameo to explain the concept. This happens a few times throughout the story, and each time this move brings some extra entertainment to the audience and serves as an effective teaching device. The pacing of the film also makes it very watchable; it almost feels like events are being rushed through – but not quite. The film begins in 1979 and moves forward from there, and McKay shows the passage of time by flashing moments in pop culture across the screen. The year-appropriate music is also a nice touch.
The entire cast of The Big Short is phenomenal; it’s difficult to pinpoint a single cast member or character that stands out, as each one is so meticulously written and performed. Christian Bale is amazingly convincing as Burry, who has a glass eye and Asperger’s. It’s not stated that his character has the latter, but the audience can tell just how out of place he is through his awkward interactions and unorthodox ways – it’s easy to become engrossed in Bale’s performance. Gosling also does a fine job as the temperamental yet quirky Jared Vennett, and he provides endless amusing narration. Brad Pitt is nearly unrecognizable in his shaggy-haired and bearded costume, playing the man who doesn’t really want to be involved in the matter. Although Ben is less of an oddball than the other men, he still has an important place as the occasional voice of reason, often reminding characters and the audience what’s at stake. Finally, Steve Carell simply becomes his outlandish character. We frequently see Mark Baum making hilarious faces of frustration; but Carell still manages to convince the audience that his character is to be taken seriously. As the film goes on, more and more depth is revealed to Baum, and he becomes quite a relatable character. Overall, the cast is basically the best part of the film. The cast members are portraying men who are willing to watch the world burn as long as they can make a profit, yet the actors somehow manage to make the characters likeable. This trick is somewhat reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Wolf of Wall Street.
The film’s only major fault is the complexity of the situation that it’s trying to summarize. Professionals in banking take many courses to understand the complex system that is the economy, so trying to get audience members of many different backgrounds to understand it is a Herculean task. McKay does a really good job at first; using the celebrity cameos and metaphorical examples to convey the vocabulary, but towards the end of the film events are happening so quickly that the audience can barely keep up with events when new terms like “swaps” are introduced. It would have been prudent for McKay to refrain from assuming that the audience would be able to follow the new vocabulary. However, this is only a small blemish.
The reason that The Big Short works so well is because it’s balanced: it’s got comedy and drama – but the drama is happening so quickly that the pacing feels like that of an action movie. This film is incredibly engaging to watch, and loaded with performances that are sure to sweep awards. Nobody likes to dwell in misery on tragedies of the past, and that’s why McKay’s approach to telling the story of the housing market collapse is so brilliant – he frames it with humor. BUT, that’s not to say that the film doesn’t take the devastating event seriously. McKay does make sure to subtly show the terrible impact that the crash had on so many Americans. It’s not a move he does to shame the public, it’s more of a reminder.
Bottom Line: The Big Short is indubitably one of the best films of 2015, with stellar writing and directing, a talented and effective cast, and an essential message for viewers.