A defiantly entertaining motion picture, Adam McKay’s The Big Short is based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis and is one of the finest explanations of the 2007-2010 financial crisis to ever hit the screen. Featuring a screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph, this is the sort of film that crackles with irrepressible energy.
Some of The Big Short functions as a sort of idiot’s guide to things like the creation of the credit default swap market and the CDO bubble, with walk-ons like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain explaining critical economic concepts through the use of classroom-like comparisons. This approach is pure McKay, with outlandish humour mingling with pure documentary information.
In 2005, hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) makes a discovery: the housing market is unstable because it’s based on high-risk subprime loans. Burry predicts that the market will collapse in 2007 and subsequently crafts a credit default swap market as a way to profit from this inevitable failure. He bets against the market, with the banks laughingly accepting his offers.
Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), an investor, learns of Burry’s activities and wants in. He puts up his own stake in the market and accidentally calls trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who joins him in the investments. Baum is troubled, however, and believes that the entire economy could collapse as a result of fraud in the ratings agencies. When the inevitable happens, profits soar.
Together with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, McKay puts together a dizzying world of high finance. His approach is similar to Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street in a lot of ways, only the Anchorman director brings his own flair to the proceedings and actually takes more artistic risks. From on-screen text to layered songs in Vegas to a laugh track, McKay delivers some truly compelling cinematic treats.
He also handles the film’s triad of horror stories well, bouncing from Bale’s genius to Carell’s Baum to the boyish Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and their mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). Because the acting is sublime and because the screenplay is so damn sharp, no single story overshadows the others.
Part of The Big Short functions like ludicrous theatre, with silly hairpieces and padding jobs rendering the likes of Carell and Pitt into hyper versions of the American Hustle gang. But this is all part of the dance, with McKay’s tale crossing the line into absurdity because the truth crossed the line to absurdity. Going to extremes is maybe the only way to reasonably weave such an ridiculous tale of woe.
Baum dresses himself as the ethical thrust and he speaks the voice of reason from time to time, even as he still profits from the colossal scale of fraud. His partners convince him that cashing in will be at the expense of the banks, but the system is a snake and there’s no polite way to make millions from shorting subprime mortgages.
Bale’s Burry eventually produces profits of 489 percent from his actions, even as investors bailed on him and threatened lawsuits. His eccentricities set him apart from other suit-wearing money-makers. He blares Metallica and is socially awkward, but that doesn’t stop him from making a ton of bank. Bale draws out these peculiarities without overdoing it, creating a captivating character in the process.
McKay uses his cast of characters as more than captive figures. They talk to the audience frequently and set up situations that lucidly explain critical details. They even draw up extravagant but practical metaphors, like when Gosling’s character employs a Jenga set to explain the rating system and the subsequent housing market collapse.
While The Big Short is often on-the-nose with its explanations and moral authority, it also never ceases to function as gripping cinematic art. McKay’s picture is an engaging piece of fury and it wraps reminding the audience of the facts: only one person involved in the CDO catastrophe was arrested and the whole issue seems primed to happen again thanks to the 2015 sale of single-tranche CDOs. Talk about absurd.