Film Review: ‘The Big Short’

'The Big Short' Review: Adam McKay's
Courtesy of Paramount

Adam McKay's financial-crisis comedy turns a dense economics lecture into a hyper-caffeinated postmodern farce.

Of all the current century’s most cataclysmic world-historical events, the 2008 financial crisis is probably among the most poorly understood. Filmmakers looking to rectify this have already approached the story from a number of angles, from sober-minded documentary (“Inside Job”) to operatic boiler-room drama (“Margin Call”), but the route taken by “The Big Short” is by far the most radical, turning a dense economics lecture into a hyper-caffeinated postmodern farce, a spinach smoothie skillfully disguised as junk food. Taking style cues from hip-hop videos, Funny or Die clips and “The Office,” Adam McKay’s film hits its share of sour notes; some important plot points are nearly impossible for laypeople to decipher even with cheeky, fourth-wall-obliterating tutorials, and the combination of eye-crossing subject matter and nontraditional structure makes it a risky bet at the box office. But there’s an unmistakable, scathing sense of outrage behind the whole endeavor, and it’s impossible not to admire McKay’s reckless willingness to do everything short of jumping through flaming hoops on a motorcycle while reading aloud from Keynes if that’s what it takes to get people to finally pay attention.

Adapted from Michael Lewis’ bestselling book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” McKay’s film traces the roots of the global market collapse through the eyes of those who saw it coming and figured out ways to profit from it. First out of the gate is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a stock-picking shaman with a glass eye and an utter lack of social graces, who crunches numbers while pacing his office barefoot and blaring Mastodon. By actually bothering to go through the thousands of individual mortgages that make up the securities that underwrite so much of the banking industry, Burry realizes that a dangerous number of subprime home loans are on the verge of going south, and decides to plug more than a billion dollars of his investors’ money into credit default swaps, effectively betting against the housing market.

His seemingly insane investments create enough of a stir on Wall Street to attract the attention of alpha-douche banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, who also serves as the film’s foul-mouthed narrator). Thanks to a fortuitous wrong number, Vennett winds up going into the credit-default-swap business with Mark Baum (Steve Carell, playing a fictionally named character), a self-hating hedge funder with a centimeter-long fuse. The potential windfall also interests the bumbling small-potatoes investment team of Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who loop in a former banker-gone-New Age (Brad Pitt) to help get them a spot at the grown-ups’ table.

Despite sturdy, energetic performances from all the actors mentioned above, only Carell’s Baum manages to register as a genuine, empathetic character; not coincidentally, he’s also the only one to express believable compunctions about getting rich off a looming fiscal catastrophe. Indeed, despite its satirical bent, “The Big Short” often seems a bit too eager to present these men as sympathetic, when all they really did was prove to be smarter than the average investor about a downturn that caused so much misery for so many innocent people.

Simply balancing this many characters (there are also significant roles for Marisa Tomei, Adepero Oduye, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall and Jeremy Strong) would be difficult enough, but McKay is also tasked with talking his audience through immensely — and at times intentionally — esoteric financial products and procedures. Sometimes he does this through onscreen text, and at others he’ll halt the narrative to have attractive celebrities spell out terms like “synthetic collateralized debt obligation.” Aware of how quickly viewers can tire of watching terrible men in suits screaming jargon at each other, the director also splices in lightning-fast montages of period-appropriate pop culture and sometimes seemingly random imagery to keep up the pace. (Editor Hank Corwin more than earns his paycheck here with the sheer amount of visual information he’s managed to process, though the film could have done with a more low-key shooting approach than d.p. Barry Ackroyd’s somewhat exhausting camera movement.)

“The Big Short” is miles removed from McKay’s previous films like “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” but a bit of their broadness remains, and his attempts at more subtle metaphorical commentary — an S&P analyst (Melissa Leo) with a vision condition, a drunken SEC agent (Karen Gillan) throwing herself at anyone with a Goldman Sachs business card — are way too on-the-nose. As it nears its final act, however, the film takes an effective turn for the serious, with even our cynical investor-heroes surprised to learn just how deep the institutional rot in the country’s financial systems really went.

And perhaps McKay’s hyperreal approach is exactly what this story needs, given how far removed from the reality-based community so many of the highest-paid financial gurus were at the time. (More than once, the film has to directly address the audience just to stress that, yes, the scene talking place actually did happen.) In the pic’s most viciously surreal sequence, Baum and company travel to Florida to see firsthand some of the mortgages that are threatening to go belly-up, finding cul-de-sacs full of abandoned houses, highly motivated McMansion sellers, and a pair of meatheaded mortgage consultants who chuckle over writing six-figure home loans for buyers with no income or down payment. Baum steps aside and consults with one of his agents. “Why are they confessing?” he asks, confused. “They’re not,” comes the reply. “They’re bragging.”

Film Review: 'The Big Short'

Reviewed at AFI Fest (closer), Los Angeles, Nov. 13, 2015. MPAA rating: R. Running time: 130 MIN.

Production

A Paramount release, presented with Regency Enterprises, of a Plan B Entertainment production. Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnan Milchan. Executive producers, Louise Rosner-Meyer, Kevin Messick.

Crew

Directed by Adam McKay. Screenplay, McKay, Charles Randolph, based on the book by Michael Lewis. Camera (color), Barry Ackroyd; editor, Hank Corwin; music, Nicholas Britell; production designer, Clayton Hartley; costume designer, Susan Matheson; art director, Elliott Glick; sound, David Wyman; supervising sound editor, Becky Sullivan; re-recording mixers, Anna Behlmer, Terry Porter; visual effects supervisor, Paul Linden; visual effects, Bylola, Industrial Light and Magic, assistant director, Matt Rebenkoff; casting, Francine Maisler.

With

Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Karen Gillan, Max Greenfield, Billy Magnussen, Melissa Leo, Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Richard Thaler, Selena Gomez, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Byron Mann.

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  1. Michel says:

    Hopefully, (and we’ve all heard about hoping and crapping in ones hand which get filled first)
    this movie, as well as the book it’s based on, will be compulsory reading/viewing in all the
    ivory league hall’s of higher learning.

  2. Fred says:

    Reading from Keynes is what caused this mess in the first place.

  3. Moon says:

    What a great film. It is bizarre in its execution, wonderfully acted and it does not lecture people on morality. Most importantly, it doesn’t patronise the audience by wrapping the economic crisis into a soppy drama, like other films have done, to make it accessible to the general public because they think we cannot understand the financial part of the crisis or the banks’, rating agencies’ and government’s involvement in it. And, it does not make the characters sound like heroes at all, I have no idea where the reviewer got that from. In fact, in more than one time it points out that they were aware of the consequences on the American population, they just were surprised about how deeply corrupted the all system was when the crisis broke off.

  4. Connie says:

    I watched in a audience of all retirees. We laughed all the way through and then we left so angry.

  5. Sane Jane says:

    I thought the movie was terrific. I hope word of mouth makes people continue to see it.

  6. deborah says:

    The Wall Street Journal’s review clinched it for me, grab my coat and go! Now I think “The Big Short” is too important a film to miss.

    From Variety Adam McKay’s film-version of “The Big Short,” got a 70 in Fandango (accessed: 12/31/2015).

    That 70, looked out of place among several 90s and a half-dozen or so 100s Fandango posted (one from WSJ).

    Yet I don’t object to Andrew Barker’s assessment but something he said still bothers me:

    That “some important plot points (that) are nearly impossible for laypeople to decipher even with tutorials … make it a risky bet at the box office.”

    But I already knew up-front, on my way to the movie that, I wouldn’t really understand that much.

    Except, that’s what it was all about in 2008 and as the film said: widespread-greed, stupidity, fraud, and opaqueness that kept us all in the dark. Looking back now I wonder if even, my own, lack of financial-literacy wasn’t also fueling the momentum. Soon it would be possible for those, so much smarter than I am to bet against (short) the housing-market meaning, to bet against— me holding my mortgage.

    I assume Variety holds sway (in the entertainment industry) as it has for decades and that reviews generally affect a film’s distribution and release (re: theaters and streaming media). I’m only guessing of course but my point is anyone who wants to see “The Big Short,” (in limited release where I live) should have the chance.

  7. Ed says:

    This is one of the most articulate reviews I’ve read about this movie. Indeed, Hank Corwin does terrific work, and there are far too many wobbly hand held close ups that are frequently out of focus. And for all the tea party guys who want to blame everything on the government, step away from the Kool Aid and stop watching Hannity.

  8. Jay says:

    Good movie, but absolutely zero mention of Fannie and Freddie and the role government played in this crisis. To portray regulators as being asleep at the wheel is disingenuous. They were encouraging banks to lend to people who shouldn’t have loans in the first place.

    • deborah says:

      Hi Jay, The film made a reference to Fannie in a visual. It was of a cover of a Fannie Mae GPO publication. I blinked almost missing it too but it was there

  9. Tom says:

    This is all Bernie Sanders needs for his election campaign. Horrific that the big banks are bigger and more powerful than in 2008 and are concocting even more risky financial instruments that will benefit only the wealthy before the fraud is revealed. As Carell quotes in the movie. Fraud isalways eventually revealed and fails. And by the way………..this is all true. Massive fraud without prosecution bailed out by taxpayer money. Take that back. The government had to go further in debt to fund the bailout. And to think that Hank Paulson was the Secretary of the Treasury and former CEO of Goldman Sachs a big perpetrator of the convoluted fraudulent schemes.

  10. eddie willers says:

    1% of the one percenters will flock to the theaters. This bomb will make Steve Jobs look like Star Wars.

  11. jhoughton1 says:

    “all they really did was prove to be smarter than the average investor about a downturn that caused so much misery for so many innocent people.”

    In fairness, they yelled and screamed about the looming bubble the while as they were betting on it. Problem was, no one wanted to listen.

  12. jhoughton1 says:

    The reviewer fails to mention “Too Big To Fail,” an excellent parsing of the events of that dramatic time.

  13. Banjoman says:

    The invocation of Keynes is exceedingly weird…

  14. Silvana says:

    Entertaining. This could win Oscar or Spotlight. The race is between just those two films.

  15. Gabriel says:

    Not going to lie, this does look really fucking cool.

  16. Another home run for Brad Pitt and Plan B. The man is on a roll.

  17. K.D. says:

    Just saw it….. It’s electrifying, and it’s awesome. Huge kudos to McKay who’s pulled off a nearly impossibly hard feat. And literally every actor was just dynamite, esp Bale, Carell & Pitt.

  18. Wendy Cooley says:

    I can’t wait to see this. It might open some of the public’s eyes to Wall Street and Investment bankers.

  19. Adam says:

    Does the film mention the role of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act in the 2008 financial crisis?

    • George Khalsa says:

      In assuming the audience will only pay attention to TV stars in a conversation about financial markets McKay insults the audience. By characterizing the financial services industry and all who work in it as corrupt, this movie actually mitigates the criminal guilt of the high level industry and government people who perpetrated a fraud. If everybody is corrupt then who is guilty?

    • jhoughton1 says:

      It will be interesting to see if the conversation is re-ignited or if people just say, “Get over it, that was so eight years ago!”

      • Shawn McDonald says:

        Somehow I doubt the movie mentions Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of TX whose idea it was to give mortgages to people who could not pay for them.

        Or the Clinton Administration enacting Barbara Jordan’s ideas.

        Or the seven times agents of the Bush Administration went to the Banking Subcommittee of Congress and warned them that Freddie and Fannie were overleveraged in bad debt. And the seven times Barney Frank laughed them off.

        But at least idiot America can finally figure out that it wasn’t GWB who invented an obscure mortgage insurance product that ended up being exploited to the temporary ruin of some 401Ks and the lowest workforce participation in history.

  20. Zoe says:

    This doesn`t really sound like the Oscar contender some were predicting it would be.

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