A dense, informative, sometimes heartbreaking exploration of what happened over the course of four years to spawn the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and a quasi-biopic of the six outsiders who saw it coming and took on the big banks responsible for it. Doesn’t exactly call to mind a crowd-pleasing good time, but in the hands of director Adam McKay, famous for giving Will Ferrell carte blanche in a number of farces, this is an engrossing comedy with broad appeal and biting wit, proving that McKay’s untapped potential as a curator of cultural and societal observation has now been fulfilled. Based on the book by Michael Lewis, “The Big Short” is essential viewing for anyone who gives a damn about their financial well-being, and particularly anyone who was affected, directly or indirectly, by the crash of 2008.
Christian Bale is blithely eccentric as Mike Burry, a socially awkward hedge fund manager with Asperger’s whose gift for analytics puts him at the forefront of forecasting this impending doom, and at the precipice of reaping the benefits should he turn out correct. The finer details of Wall Street and white-collar Main Street, where terms like subprime lending, credit default swaps, and collateralized debt obligation are thrown around like vowels, are a heady lot, but McKay and screenwriter Charlie Randolph go to painstaking lengths to make it all not-at-all boring to the layman: voice-overs, still montages, celebrity cameos, superimposed graphics, even breaking the fourth wall to explain things when the intellectual goings get tough to comprehend. Such lengths sound gimmicky, and occasionally they are, but they work wonders in rendering the complex inter-workings of Wall Street palatable. Ryan Gosling, as suave Deutsche bank trader Jared Vennett, opens the film with one of those voice-overs, speaking directly to the audience in Scorsesian tones as if auditioning for the Jordan Belfort role in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Unflattering comparisons are fortunately short-lived, however, as cinema verite-style camerawork and Gosling’s wily charisma avoid further callbacks to that other great film about real-world greed.
When Vennett catches word of Burry’s crusade to buy default swaps from the banks, he does some digging and starts his own crusade, bringing in a hedge fund headed by Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, an outspoken manager with a loud moral compass and a wife (Marisa Tomei) who’s concerned about his refusal to face a recent tragedy. Throw in a couple of inexperienced twenty-somethings (Finn Wittrock, John Magaro) in the midst of a start-up firm, and the retired trader (Brad Pitt) mentoring them, and “The Big Short” has all of the biographic and demographic bases covered. While it may be a stretch to call these characters “rebels,” each of them make substantial moves to screw the big banks that have been screwing over average Joe for years. Some of them do it for profit, some of them do it out of moral outrage, all of them do it while the rest of the finance world sneers in a sort of condescending satisfaction. They believe them foolish in their pursuit to bet against that supposedly rock-solid foundation of the American economy, the housing market, which makes their eventual losses all the more sweet, even hysterical.
Regardless of such funny business, like when those twenty-somethings dance for joy at the prospect of making untold dollars off of their dire predictions, the filmmakers never lose sight of the fact that the lives of real, ordinary Americans were destroyed in the fall out. A father and daughter begin as tenants in a luxurious rental house (that happens to be mired in a landlord’s mountain of debt), and end on the cusp of homelessness with only an SUV to shelter them from a sketchy parking lot. Like Lewis’s earlier work “Moneyball,” it’s about men standing up to a pervailing status quo and succeeding despite the elitist forces working against them. If you want to learn how and why the economic crisis spanning from 2007 to 2010 was spurred, and have a little fun doing so, see “The Big Short.”