I’m not even going to pretend to understand most of the things the characters in “The Big Short,” a drama about the recent subprime mortgage crisis, discuss. Although the filmmakers did everything they could to make the material easy to digest, there’s only so much one can do to dumb down the causes of a global economic collapse. Still, in a testament to the exceptional work of the cast and crew, the film is great fun and a solid piece of social commentary.
Director and co-writer Adam McKay plumbs the depths of human depravity in “The Big Short.” I’m not referring to sex, drugs, or violence, but pure, unadulterated greed – the kind that snaps up every possible dollar without concern for other people. In fact, the jocular arrogance of the architects of the mortgage crisis should inspire righteous anger in you. I’m generally a pacifist, and I wanted to slap the supercilious grins off their WASPy faces.
Deep breath ... I’m supposed to write about the film, not comment on how indescribably selfish those people were. It’s just that part of the success of “The Big Short” is how it made me feel, even as it threw reams of complex information about banking, real estate, and other aspects of the U.S. economy at me. McKay accomplished this by co-writing a script packed with humor, dialogue that feels natural, and well-drawn characters.
I’ll start with the laughs. Have you ever wanted to pause a movie when it started to go over your head? I have. McKay does this for viewers by having a narrator talk directly to the audience – often in gutsy and hilarious ways. In one scene, he pauses the story to allow Margot Robbie, the knuckle-gnawing beauty from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” to explain the ins and outs of mortgage-backed securities while soaking in a bubble bath. (I listened, but don’t quiz me on the scene.)
McKay and his fellow writers also have a knack for writing good one-liners. When one male character expresses doubt about a particular fiscal maneuver, the person trying to convince him to go along with it says, “I like your shirt. They make it for men, too.”
Based on a true story, “The Big Short” was also perfectly cast. While it contains several great bit parts, such as Ryan Gossling as a zealous investor, I’ll focus on the major roles, including Christian Bale as hedge fund manager Michael Burry and Steve Carell as trader Mark Baum.
Burry was the first to look at the mountains of data the American housing market produces and see the impending crisis. He then boldly convinced his investors to bet against the market. In a performance peppered with quirks, Bale portrays Burry as a brilliant but socially awkward eccentric. I especially liked how he could look into the lens of the camera, yet appear as though he was staring right through me. But as Bale always does, he found the humanity inside a challenging character, and used his insight to connect with the audience.
Then there’s Carell, who’s made a trade out of playing lovable lug heads in comedies like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Anchorman.” In “The Big Short,” however, he proves he has the chops to handle a pivotal dramatic role. Baum spends most of the movie morally outraged and wound tighter than a watch, and you can see the weight of the world on his saggy face and in his slumped shoulders. Carell appears to have transformed himself physically for the role, gaining weight and growing a mop of hair, but the real makeover is the one he did on his career. Like Tom Hanks did, I can see him doing more drama.
Lastly, I want to point out how well McKay balanced the stylistic elements of the film. Many of the choices he made could have been seen as gimmicky, especially the way he shatters the fourth wall, but everything he did fits the tone of the picture. McKay could have easily used zooming cameras and saturated the soundtrack with hip music, but that would have drowned out his message. From his framing of scenes to the decisions he made with regard to the soundtrack, McKay used a steady hand. As a result, he draws audiences in and entertains them without going overboard, and the movie wound up working very well as a stern cautionary tale.
If “The Big Short” is as exhilarating to watch as I’ve expressed, why did I leave the theater angry? Partly because McKay makes a strong case for another collapse taking place in the near future. With one exception, the people who triggered the mortgage crisis got off scot-free, and therefore seemed to have learned nothing, and gained no character, from the experience. McKay says their up to their old ways, and suggests even harder times lie ahead. Those evil b ...
Deep breath ...
Four stars out of four. Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality and nudity.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.