Film Review: 'The Big Short'
Movies about the financial world and about Wall Street can be notoriously difficult to produce. Often, heroes and villains all wear suits and look stiff, and their subject matter is so complex that you'd feel like you need a B.A. in economics just to keep up. And even if the film is well-made, there’s no guarantee that the viewer won’t get lost along the way.
Thus, writer and director Adam McKay had a lot on his plate when captaining The Big Short, a film based on the Michael Lewis non-fiction novel of the same name that chronicles the players and events leading up to the 2008 American financial crisis. Like its contemporaries, The Big Short is just as dense in financial lingo and industry savvy, and it moves at a mile a minute. It bares few, if any, similarities to Hollywood’s standard fare, especially in regards to the way it’s cut and stylized
Yet if you keep up with the movie's breathless pace and its more difficult subject matter, then The Big Short quickly becomes one of the most rewarding movies on this month's awards circuit. There’s a treasure trove of great performances – capped off with an eccentric performance by Christian Bale – and a unique editing style that often mirrors music videos and French New Wave-style montages. There's even fourth wall-breaking moments that acknowledge how deeply the economic collapse affected the audience. The Big Short is unabashedly aware of its own existence, and does so in order to tell an emotionally charged, difficult story in a palatable way.
It begins with weirdo hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale) who, in 2005, predicts the collapse of the U.S. housing market. Yet he’s hard to believe – he’s not only betting for the impossible to happen, but his style of wearing front pocket t-shirts, cargo shorts, and walking around his office barefoot doesn’t earn him respect from suited colleagues and industry leaders. Even so, he aims to profit from the collapse by creating a credit default swap market – and all the banks, thinking he’s nuts (they’re not completely wrong), accept his bets.
That’s when stock trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s exploits, and places his own stake in the new market. Fellow hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell, who gives an enjoyably nasally and cynical performance) gets in on the action after an errant phone call alerts him to the dealings.
Then enter Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), motivated young investors who want a hand in the business as well. They earn the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a market genius who is the only reason the financial rookies can have any clout in the first place. All of these characters create opportunities for huge profits, but by doing so, they contributing to a plausible collapse of the American economy, and, by extension, the destruction of the livelihood of millions of families.
The Big Short really begins to shine when its characters all react differently to this looming threat. Burry is almost completely robotic, electing to beat the drumsticks he keeps in his desk and blare heavy metal in his office. Baum, cynical as he is of his career field, can’t help but have a bad taste in his mouth about his investments. Rickert is initially reluctant to help Geller and Shipley, and even after he does, he lectures them about the impending collapse once the pair get all giddy about their made money. And Vennett, a suave prettyboy banker, also serves as a narrator. Even though he knows his audience was brutalized by the market collapse he helped cause, Vennett can’t help but smugly editorialize the story.
Characters like Vennett are just one means for McKay to continue his comedic, self-referential approach to his sensitive story, instead of opting for a documentary-style cataloging of the times. McKay even includes celebrity cameos to help explain some of the film’s most important sequences – such as Margot Robbie, naked and in a bubble bath, telegraphing Burry’s sinister plot to short the subprime loans. (And there's even more cameos after Robbie.) Its subject matter may be touchy, but the film aims to be fun – and triumphs at it. And for that, the movie is easily accessible.
But by and large the greatest strength of The Big Short is its editing. McKay and editor Hank Corwin bring a bravura of sequences that cut on the beat of its players. In one, Burry’s drumsticks fade into the keyboard-clacking beat of a montage as he sifts through financial statistics. In another, Baum finds himself torn up by inner conflicts in a scene that includes emotional flashbacks and some abstract visions. Scenes play in and out of another as characters enter a room previously occupied by others that were never physically there. This is a memorable editing style that not only cuts for story when it matters most, but also cuts for music video-inspired style and cuts to maximize emotional punch.
So it doesn’t matter if Margot Robbie is seen picking up her champagne glass twice in two shots, or if Bale’s Burry is incomprehensibly bizarre. What matters is that the movie perfectly captures the cynicism and distrust the American public has of Wall Street, as well as the frustrations that befell families and homeowners during the 2008 collapse. This was the movie that only Adam McKay could have made.
Yes, Burry probably wasn’t that weird in real life, and Vennett never talked to an imaginary audience Frank Underwood-style as he concocted his dubious schemes. This movie was never meant to be a documentary; if we are judging the movie by its emotional accuracy, then The Big Short is completely truthful to one of the most difficult times in contemporary American history.
Written by Charles Randolph & Adam McKay (screenplay) and Michael Lewis (book).
Directed by Adam McKay.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt.