As anyone who stayed through the end credits of his excellent 2010 comedy The Other Guys will know, writer-director Adam McKay has more on his mind than arrogant anchormen, racist Nascar drivers, warring man-children and bumbling cops. That sequence explained Ponzi schemes with a wit and anger that McKay has applied to his latest film The Big Short, a frantic and hilarious unpacking of the financial crash of 2008.
Adapted by Charles Randolph from Michael Lewis’ non-fiction novel of the same name and then polished by McKay, the film focuses on a few characters who saw the financial crisis coming long before the banks and the government did. It all starts with Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an antisocial fund manager who, while locked away in his office blasting some speed metal, discovers that the housing market is built on bad loans and the whole system is going to crumble. Against conventional wisdom, he bets an obscene amount of his investors’ money on this discovery and waits for it to eventually pay off.
This information finds its way to a small hedge fund company lead by Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), whose tragic past has left him with nothing but contempt for the big banks. Where Burry seems completely unfazed by the implications of being right in this scenario, for Baum it is a lot more personal and throughout the film, he grows more and more disgusted by the greed, selfishness and short-sightedness of the whole system, even when it ultimately makes him a very rich man.
On the fringes of all this is Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Gellar (John Magaro), a couple of upstarts from Colorado who are looking to break into the Wall Street elite but don’t have the cash to do so. They take what they’ve got and pump it into default credit swaps, turning to their mentor and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to lend them enough clout to make the deals. Rickert – played by Pitt in sincere intellectual mode – has long since gotten out of the finance game and seems to be the only character in the movie who sees how wrong it all is from the start, chastising his protégés when they celebrate making a fortune from regular people’s lives being destroyed.
The one character connecting these strands is Deutsche Bank douche bag Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). He is the one who gives Burry’s information to Baum and it’s his lost dossier that falls into the hands of Jamie and Charlie. But Vennett also serves as a semi-unreliable narrator, continually breaking the fourth wall to tell us that the events taking place actually happened differently or to introduce a series of celebrities who pop up to explain some of the key jargon, including Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining the ins and outs of subprime mortgages.
This ingenious device is precisely why McKay is the perfect filmmaker for this material. A film with so much financial waffle could’ve easily been boring and confusing to anyone who’s not a Wall Street trader but McKay directs with his usual wit and energy, managing to deliver a ton of complicated and ultimately very bleak information without the film becoming anything less than a complete blast.
At the centre of it all is a series of pitch perfect performances from a very impressive cast. Gosling gets most of the film’s big laughs with his flashy, high-energy performance while Bale manages to find some real pathos in what at times comes across as a typical movie savant. But the real standout is Carrell, who always seems to be barely concealing a vat of anger and disgust. He’s fidgety and twitchy and struggles to hold his tongue when confronted by some of the more appalling people involved in this whole mess. There’s always an undercurrent of melancholy in his performance though, brought about by events in his past but also his growing unease at what he and his colleagues are doing.
The sublime cast helps The Big Short achieve perhaps its biggest trick: making us root for a group of guys who stand to benefit massively by betting on average people losing their homes. It’s easy to forget that fact throughout the film and get swept up in the fun of watching our heroes’ attempts to screw the system, like rooting for the Ocean’s Eleven crew to pull off their heist.
That is until a bleak ending where the implications of the housing crisis really begin to dawn on those who have just made a fortune from it. McKay chooses to close the film with a wickedly funny fake out before ending on a series of screens of text that feels a dry considering the invention and wit of the rest of the film, yet is too humorous to really have a sobering effect.
It’s a rare bum note in a film that pokes fun at the absurdity of this whole scenario while also providing some level of clarity and insight. McKay tackles this tricky material with the right tragicomic tone and knows how to keep the film quick and funny enough to never feel like a lesson. McKay might’ve seemed like an unconventional choice for this material but by the time the film’s over, it’s hard to imagine anyone else having made it.