At once documentary and narrative, comical and cynical, The Big Short is a refreshingly un-self-important end-of-the-year release from director Adam McKay. McKay, who’s best known for making such silly comedies as Anchorman and Talladega Nights, has plenty of experience with movies about terrible people in positions of power. Now he’s made a film which depicts real people who did real damage, even though some of the names have been changed. The Big Short examines the housing market crash of 2007-08 and the financial entrepreneurs who predicted it and profited by it. It’s a virtual who’s-who of the country’s greediest people. The film’s wry tone will likely overshadow the real weight of its subject matter. But thematically speaking, this movie is on the level of a massive-scaled Victorian novel: It’s both fascinated by and critical of capitalism, and even if it doesn’t punish its characters with the moral authority of a Trollope or a Dickens, it’s a film capable of lighting a fire in its audience.
The material covered by The Big Short (it’s adapted by McKay and Charles Randolph from Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book) is dense and at times confusing if you are, like me, woefully under-educated about sub-prime mortgages and swaps and all things mortgage-related. McKay knows his material is difficult, which may be one of the reasons he resorts to at times audacious moments of humor. The market’s crash was, of course, a very bad thing for a lot of people. And you can feel the film’s indignation as it depicts all of the financial entrepreneurs who profited by the crash. Playing hedge fund manager Michael Burry, Christian Bale is—according to the movie—the first to recognize a housing bubble. It’s 2005, and Burry, who wears a T-shirt and cargo shorts to the office and blitzes himself out to heavy metal while he stares into a computer screen all day, decides to short the market. His colleagues are horrified that Burry will bring their company to ruin, and the big lending companies are only too happy to take his money, never dreaming that Burry will ultimately be taking theirs.
The film tracks various other financial people who, like Burry, make the decidedly amoral choice to short the housing market, to profit off the impending financial ruin of others. Their attitude is: Anyone can figure this out, but nobody’s looking, so why not us? Moreover, the mortgage industry had been giving housing loans to anyone with a signature. Why shouldn’t they take advantage of the bad behavior of these lending companies who are offering the American Dream to those who cannot afford it?
McKay really emerges as a first-rate director here. Anchorman and Talladega Nights have their moments, but they are both too loosey-goosey in their structure. Working with different material and different actors, and fueled by healthy cynicism, McKay has found his niche as a director. At times, the actors speak directly to the camera, but their speech is always laced with humor, as though we were watching one of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries. At other times, the movie is surprisingly humane in its treatment of its characters. Steve Carell, playing another investor, named Mark Baum, is a good example of this. Baum is a prickly rat of a man (he looks like Templeton from Charlotte’s Webb) who barges into his group therapy session and interrupts everyone with his loud complaining, only to leave again to take a phone call. He’s caught up in the noise of his own life because he’s doesn’t want to deal with a personal tragedy for which he feels guilty. Later, he’s the one who realizes that taking advantage of other people’s bad practices isn’t good: it’s just more bad behavior.
Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt co-star, although their performances don’t really register. Gosling is quite good at playing a self-aggrandizing asshole, and does that very well here. Pitt’s character is the most laid-back of the bunch: he’s into sustainable living, since he believes the crash will permanently wreck the global economy. (Sustainable living is so much easier when you’re rich.)
With Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock, Max Greenfield, Stanley Wong, and in amusing cameos, Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez.