The Big Short | Adam McKay | December 11, 2015
In many ways we are still feeling the effects of the housing bubble burst of 2007 today, a real life horror story that still hits plenty close to home. With this said, it’s hard to imagine yourself rooting for a bunch of big time money managers who are betting to get rich off the collapse global economy. But The Big Short, the latest from director Adam McKay, is able to take this tragic tale and make us root for these guys, even though we very well know the tragic outcome that awaits.
Based off a book of the same title by author Michael Lewis, The Big Short was adapted for the big screen by McKay along with co-writer Charles Randolph. We are introduced to this world via San Jose big time money manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who takes the time to study thousands of individual mortgages. He is way ahead of the game with his realization that the subprime home loans the banks lend to those with bad credit is going to lead to a huge financial disaster. Because he comes to work casually dressed and barefoot, he’s laughed out of the room when he decides to bet against the banks, with insight to future collapse that no one else can see.
That is, until Deutsche Bank worker Jared Vannett (Ryan Gosling) catches wind of what Burry is doing and decides to make a move of his own. This is where Mark Baum (Steve Carell) comes into play. Baum is a hedge-fund manager for FrontPoint, a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley. He’s a cynical crusader, just like the rest of his small but efficient team (made up of Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall, and Hamish Linklater). They’re skeptical when Vennett comes to them looking to partner with Baum and his team in order to place their bets before the inevitable collapse occurs. But one trip to see the housing market in Florida is a brutal wake up call that has Baum’s group all in. Across the country is former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) who leads the way for two upcoming money managers (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) who also happen to stumble upon the precious information and soon they too want a piece of the action.
Despite the trailers trying to convince us that this is one big collaborative effort, these stories are all happening separately, connected loosely by the troubling information that they all discover. There is no grand scene where Bale, Carell, Gosling and Pitt come together, although this is teased when all but Burry coverage to a convention in Las Vegas. There is a lot happening at once with McKay’s film, and the fact that it’s built around the complex language of Wall Street could be hard to follow. This is where McKay’s comedic instinct comes in quite handy. He doesn’t dumb down the movie for us, but cleverly uses a few comedic devices to make the complexities of the financial world easy to understand. One of such is using Gosling’s Vannett as a narrator of sorts, breaking the fourth wall and talking to us directly. It’s a fan way to bring the book to life for the audiences, breaking up the undeniable density of the book.
At first the characters are celebratory in the fact that they’ll be getting rich by sticking to the repulsive big banks, but it’s Baum and Rickert who see the bigger picture. They can’t celebrate knowing that the fraudulent bankers won’t be the only ones suffering. As we all know, it was the every day people like you and me who would be the ones losing their homes and jobs. It’s a sobering message and you can feel McKay’s anger at the situation, as it wears off on you too. He doesn’t need to do too much convincing on you, as anyone with a moral compass with be left angered, saddened and disgusted by the end result.
Although Burry begins as the films center point, and features a typical terrific Christian Bale performance, things soon gravitate towards Baum. Steve Carell steals the show from an undeniably talented ensemble cast, helped by the strong support of Strong, Spall and Linklater. Gosling is used more for comedic effect here, making me even more excited for his upcoming role in The Nice Guys. I would have liked to see a bit more of Gosling and Pitt in the film, but when you’re offered such strong work from the rest of the cast, it’s hard to complain.
McKay, best known for his comedic romps Anchorman 1 & 2 as well as Step Brothers, but proves he has the ability to make a dramatic film. It simultaneously left me entertained and both overwhelmed and stunned with anger about information that I thought I knew. The fact that McKay (as well as Lewis, of course) was able to make such a true to life horror tale as hilarious, entertaining, and full of life as he did, is a pretty amazing feat. One that connected more with me than another drab drama that could have come at the expense of a director willing to take a more standard, by the numbers, approach.