The idea of a writer/director leaving stoopid Ferrellian comedy behind for a foray into serious filmmaker territory, as Adam McKay has done, is certainly intriguing. I’m impressed that McKay decided to take on a project like The Big Short, a semi-serious film about a serious issue, and I hope he continues to branch out in such a manner in the future. (I’m sure he’ll be more inclined to continue steering his career in this direction in the wake of the various Oscar nominations he and his latest work have received, rather than because of my patronage, but whatever.) The film is a busy, energetic and occasionally insightful study of the men who shorted – i.e. bet huge sums of money against – the American housing market prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, and the narrative flits between three separate groups of characters, the real life equivalents of which spotted that the market was unstable and would eventually collapse while everyone else maintained unshakable faith in it. The first skeptic in the movie is Christian Bale’s hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who bets huge amounts of his clients’ money and must subsequently placate a number of angry men – this is a man-heavy film – as he hopes and waits for the crash to happen. The film also makes plenty of time for young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who enlist the help of Brad Pitt’s retired banker as they seek to make their fortune. Then there’s a hedge fund team led by Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, who fortuitously learn of Burry’s actions via slick trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). The three storylines never quite meet, even though plenty of common ground is shared between them, though there is one scene at a financial conference in which it looks like McKay is about to unite several characters; thankfully he doesn’t.
McKay has stretched himself with this film, though I’m not sure that The Big Short is anything more than a solid platform for further endeavour. Not that I’m implying it’s a dud, or anything: clearly it’s an enjoyable, knockabout couple of hours that has played well with audiences, featuring good-looking famous people in cameos, brief asides, conspiratorial narration, kinetic cultural montages, Schoonmaker-style editing and the kind of deliberate, jerky camera movement that seems designed to create bogus indie or lower-budget credibility. On this camera movement, briefly: I liked some of it, when it served a clear purpose; a scene in which Baum thinks about his brother’s suicidal leap off a skyscraper, which is followed by a series of quick downward pans across a number of different images, for example. Otherwise it got on my fucking nerves. Visually there is so much going on here that the film is clearly the work of someone trying too hard to be taken seriously, with McKay regularly falling back on the default position of aping Scorsese at his loosest (there are, of course, worse people you could copy). The Big Short is so packed with stylistic tics and metronomic quirk that it never quite settles down, as if the director doesn’t fully trust that the material is interesting enough in its own right, though the style is at least reflective of the film’s hyper, fast-talking workaholic characters.
I was entertained for the duration, and McKay’s screenplay – based on the novel by Michael Lewis – certainly makes most of the financial wrangling interesting and accessible for those with little or no prior knowledge of the subject. That said, the explanatory cutaways featuring Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez discussing collateralized debt obligations and the like are unnecessary. At one point Vennett explains the housing market using a set of Jenga bricks; that kind of illuminating simplicity may be ridiculous but it does just about work within the scene in question … whereas the distracting cameos are a gimmick and completely destroy any momentum that had previously been building. At least the asides – another fourth wall-breaking device, mostly delivered by Gosling – manage to create a modicum of sympathy for the single most unsympathetic character here, and deliver a couple of laughs to boot.
Bale’s scenes are initially worrying. Burry has a glass eye and a penchant for eccentric behaviour (listening to heavy metal on his headphones in the middle of a face-to-face meeting, playing with drum sticks, sending mass emails that understandably cause concern for anyone who has to deal with him professionally), and at first it looks like it’s going to be a very hammy performance, but it settles down and Burry’s part of the story is engrossing. This in itself is quite an achievement, when you consider that it mostly involves a man sitting behind a desk, alone in his office, staring at a computer screen (by contrast all of the other characters jet off to exotic locations like Florida, Nevada and, er, the south of England). Elsewhere Pitt plays a typically confident individual in a typically-confident fashion, though that does make for an interesting dynamic between his conscientious banker Ben Rickert and the two chancing investors he hooks up with; McKay has Rickert deliver one of the film’s more memorable speeches when he admonishes Geller and Shipley for their enthusiasm as the market begins to collapse, pointing out that millions of people are going to lose their jobs and their homes as a result. Carell’s Baum is the only other character who acknowledges this, and he seems driven by a desire to stick it to the banks, which is odd when you consider that his hedge fund firm is propped up by one of them. In many respects Baum is the most interesting character here, and arguably the heart of the movie; tortured by his brother’s death but unable to open up to anyone about it, he arrives at therapy meetings late and proceeds to interrupt other people, while outside of the sessions he seems permanently angry. He’s also the only character we get to see with someone whose life lies outside of the financial industry: his wife, played by Marisa Tomei, who is given a paltry amount of screen time.
The three separate investor strands are roughly afforded the same amount of time in the screenplay, and the adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller by McKay and Charles Randolph is well-structured in this sense, moving from one to another fairly smoothly. It’s a shame that the writers get too bogged down with all the explanation, though, some of which is certainly necessary and some of which isn’t. A film like Moneyball, which I have picked for comparison because it was written by Lewis, keeps the story moving constantly while also dealing with terminology and the business of baseball in a more straightforward way; sadly The Big Short repeatedly grinds to a halt when McKay and Randolph attempt to make things clearer for the audience — a nice gesture, sure, but one that ends up making this film stutter. I also left the cinema wondering whether McKay has tried too hard to make viewers like his characters. I think it’s a clever move to get you to root for these people, and therefore enlisting stars like Pitt, Gosling and Bale, who have broad appeal, was a no-brainer. Yet there are times in which the film could have been tougher on these men, and perhaps a stronger opinion about their actions would have been welcome. The Big Short is a fun couple of hours but you’ll learn more about capitalism, greed and the sub-prime mortgage crisis from Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes. Now that’s a film made by a director who has confidence in his own story, his own ability as a filmmaker, and the ability of his actors to connect with the audience. I’m on the fence with regard to this one: plenty to enjoy, for sure, but a little overrated.
Directed by: Adam McKay.
Written by: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph. Based on The Big Short by Michael Lewis.
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt, Hamish Linklater, Ralph Spall, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye.
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd.
Editing: Hank Corwin.
Music: Nicholas Britell.
Running Time: 130 minutes.