The Big Short is an angry film. Director Adam McKay, who also wrote the script with Charles Randolph, certainly has a story to tell. But he also wants to educate his audience about how the financial crisis of 2008 went down. That furious, clenched-teeth mission infuses the film, forcing it past the ostensible boundaries of its biopic genre and into the realms of documentary and even the experimental. McKay has helmed pugnacious comedies like Anchorman and The Other Guys, but we’ve never seen anything like this from him before.
Based on the 2010 book of the same title, The Big Short follows a motley crew of individuals in various corners of the financial market who all managed to spot the 2008 housing crash before it happened. First up is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager with a glass eye and Asperger’s syndrome. He listens to death metal at full blast in his office while pouring through reams of mortgage data, and discovers something remarkable: a huge number of the financial instruments being traded around Wall Street are built upon housing mortgages given to people with poor credit, low incomes, and fuzzy job prospects. Many of these mortgages also operate with adjustable rates, and when they ratchet up, everything will explode.
So Burry decides to short the entire housing market, which is to say he places a financial bet that the mortgages will go bust. If he’s right, it will be a huge payout; if he’s wrong, the premium payments will slowly bleed his fund dry. The scheme is considered so outlandish that the big financial firms literally have to invent a contract for it. Burry’s investors revolt, and Wall Street financiers laugh him out of their offices, though they happily take his money.
Word gets around, and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a slick Wall Street bro with a fake tan, digs into Burry’s numbers. Vennett may be a douchebag, but he’s a charismatic douchebag, and provides much of The Big Short’s narration through direct addresses to the camera. He’s not the only character to break the fourth wall. As serious as all this subject matter sounds, the film has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, many supplied by these casual, dry asides.
The only person who takes Vennett seriously is Mark Baum (Steve Carell), another investor with a small but loyal crew. He’s The Big Short’s heart and soul, a wound up ball of righteous moral indignation, who is (as he himself admits) happy when he’s unhappy. He’s also sitting on a good deal of regret and guilt over his failure to help a depressed family member, which lead to a personal tragedy. He blames the financial industry and its culture for twisting him into the sort of person who couldn’t offer the right help when it was needed. His grief resonates with the overall tragedy of the Great Recession in a compelling way.
Finally there’s Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), two newbies running an investment firm out of a garage, who stumble upon Burry’s proposal and realize it could be their big break. But they don’t have the licensing yet to do the deals themselves. So they turn to Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a bearded granola finance veteran who left the industry in disgust, to lend them credibility.
McKay shoots all this with a bright, crisp color palette, and a handheld cinéma vérité style. His cuts tumble over one another, as conversations and people bounce through various plot lines, lending the whole thing an almost dreamlike quality. But he maintains a deliberate pace whenever the dialogue gets into financial minutiae. McKay wants you to pay attention. He relies on his characters’ asides, along with a fun scene about mortgage-backed securities that uses a Jenga puzzle as a visual aid. But when things get sufficiently complex he stops the proceedings entirely, and has celebrities chime in with a quick tutorial. At first you’re shocked and laughing over the sheer audacity of the gambit, and then you’re amazed at how well it works.
If anything, McKay is too deliberate in educating his audience: I found the first half of the film a tad slow. But then again, I’m an economics reporter, and laypersons I talked to who watched it thought the movie moved fine. At any rate, MxKay keeps a snappy and sardonic tone, and then things turn dramatically in the second half. The characters realize the true scale of the housing bubble, and its capacity to wreck the global economy. A speech by Pitt’s character lays at the profound human toll, and The Big Short builds up a devastating head of tragic steam in its final 45 minutes.
Also to his credit, McKay never punches down. There’s a sad and haunting scene where Baum’s employees visit an abandoned housing development: one resident still there is shocked to hear his landlord hasn’t been paying the mortgage, despite getting every rent check on time. McKay offers sympathy (and occasional exasperation) for the everyday workers and homeowners caught in a system that’s deliberately too complex to understand, and he recognizes the mixed moral motives of his own protagonists. He saves his fury and contempt for an industry that’s committing outright fraud by the end, retooling its books to avoid the necessary value losses as the mortgage market hemorrhages.
All the performances are good, but Bale and Carell are especially poignant as men going up against the unctuous, self-satisfied groupthink of an insanely privileged industry convinced it could do no wrong, and that it had all the angles figured. McKay makes it pretty clear Wall Street had bought its own bullshit so completely that only loners and misfits could see what was right in front of everyone’s nose.
At two hours and ten minutes, The Big Short is a tad long. That said, I had fun, and I came away from it feeling like I had a more solid grasp on the workings of the collapse. That says a lot: I read the book, and I write about this stuff for a living! I was angry when it all happened the first time. But I’m sure McKay would be happy to hear that, when the credits rolled, I was pissed as hell all over again.