In the best possible sense, The Big Short is a film that will make you angry. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis, Adam McKay’s comic drama details the events preceding the 2008 financial crisis with scabrous wit, bringing together a small bunch of “weirdos” who saw the crisis coming and, in their own ways, profited from it. In other words, it’s a comedy about crisis.
The title refers to a method of betting against the housing market which, despite being touted as a booming industry in the period preceding the crash, was actually built on a swamp of bad debt. This is a bet first taken by Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and later by other groups including a unit of Morgan Stanley headed up by Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and a pair of youthful investors backed up by retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, also one of the film’s producers).
McKay’s film finds a delicate balance between being slavish to the details while remaining remarkably fleet-footed. There are plenty of scenes in which characters stand around explaining to each other – indeed, often to the camera as well – what the jargon they’re using really means, and these are both welcome and funny. Characters frequently break the fourth wall to make comic quips or get us up to speed on difficult subjects, and this freewheeling sense of fun pervades the film. At no point does the serious subject matter – and the film is deadly serious underneath its comic exterior – ever feel at odds with the jovial tone. In fact, McKay – along with his co-writer Charles Randolph and his actors – have succeeded in achieving what the best politically motivated satire can do: The Big Short is playful, yes, but also furiously angry. Its political points hit harder because it’s funny. On a regular basis, the audience is jolted out of its laughter by the sudden realisation that we’re laughing at a bunch of scandalously well-paid crooks.
McKay is a director best known for his numerous collaborations with Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, The Other Guys) but in the absence of his regular leading man, he’s made the best film of his career. The Big Short takes the rigour of something like Margin Call and combines it with the excess of The Wolf of Wall Street (both films about the crash) and manages to blend the two together with craft, wit and righteous fury. Martin Scorsese’s film was accused by some of being flippant towards its subject matter, but actually had a crushingly poignant endnote despite its indulgences. What’s great about The Big Short is that it achieves a level of open-mouthed disgust, combined with genuinely funny moments, pretty much from beginning to end.
Yes, this does mean that grouchy Mark Baum (a partly fictionalised version of a real person) in some ways comes to represent the audience’s position of outrage – often spelling out the pretty obvious – but Steve Carell’s excellent performance bridges the gap between this world and ours. Ryan Gosling is also on great form as sleazy trader Jared Vennett, and Christian Bale too as Burry, a heavy-metal obsessed and socially awkward numbers whizz. The supporting cast, who are too numerous to mention here, are on top of their game. There’s a great scene involving two real estate crooks which feels like a comic deleted scene from last year’s 99 Homes, also a post-crash diatribe. Only Marisa Tomei feels wasted as Baum’s wife; like The Wolf of Wall Street, this film depicts a very male world, and as such the women can’t help feeling a little bolted on.
The ‘heroes’ in this story are at best morally ambiguous. We cheer for them because, in their own way, they are fighting the duplicity of the banking machine, but they remain defined, in a sense, by greed. The film is smart enough not to make saints of them, convincingly portraying the idea that the system is so deeply flawed and so massive, so shot-through with, in Vennett’s words, “greed and stupidity”, that individual morality becomes practically irrelevant.
How many comedies inspire this sort of discussion? The Big Short feels like, dare I say it, an important film. It’s directed with palpable anger and verve by Adam McKay, although I have to admit I felt it was a little over-directed at times. There are a lot of visual ticks in the film – extreme close ups, freeze-frames, montages and so on – most of which are great, but which do start to get a little tiresome. At times I wanted the camera to stay still a little more, but in general McKay’s tricks convey the sense of a fast-moving industry too insular to really look at itself. You could also argue there’s very little characterisation in the film, and the small attempts at establishing depth feel a tad perfuncto ry. But it would be unforgivable to end on a sour note for what will surely be one of the year’s most memorable and provocative comedies. It’ll make you angry, but in a good way.