The Big Short (2015)
The subject matter of The Big Short is the worldwide financial collapse of 2008, and the only way to explore what happened is to get highly technical. This means director Adam McKay must do exactly what author Michael Lewis did when he wrote the nonfiction book this material is based on: he must find a way to make the average consumer entertained by numbers, financial concepts, and the inner workings of corporate corruption. Against all odds, he succeeds wildly and creates one of the best movies of 2015.
McKay narrows the focus of Lewis’ book to a few individuals in order to best hold our gaze. We’re given a periodic narrator in Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, a cocky and hungry investor played with panache and injected with no small amount of douchebaggery. Vennett introduces Michael Burry, a genius who foresees the housing market collapse when he realizes the bonds containing mortgages are a joke way back in 2005. Vennett himself helps bring this inconsistency to the eyes of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a morally-conscious hedge fund manager who then bets against the banks with his small team. We also see the story unfold in the hands of young investors Charlie Geller (John Margaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who call in an older expert named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them make some money.
The Big Short navigates a three-year period by showing how experts with an eye for bullshit were able to realize everything was about to fall apart and there was money to be made by going against the grain. Each main character endures hardships along the way as institutions and higher-ups refuse to believe that something so historically dependable and low-risk could possibly explode in short order. This means that everyone involved has a lot to lose if any of them are wrong, and that while sticking to their convictions and insight may make them rich and help bring the big banks to their knees, it may also cost them their livelihood and careers.
It’s pretty stunning, really, and this is merely an account of a historical event that happened less than a decade before the film was made. Even when all the numbers point to Burry and those who found out about his theories being correct, banks are using any means possible to cover up their failure and obscure their insidious corruption. It’s that or admit that millions of people are about to have everything taken from them, right? Watching the process unfold is fascinating and disgusting, but McKay and his accomplished cast make sure it’s never boring.
The chief manner in which The Big Short avoids ever becoming boring is by infusing the proceedings with ample doses of humor. All of the main characters are given full-blown personalities rather than being reduced to vague caricatures. The financial concepts involved are explained through visuals and by using winking asides. One scene has Gosling’s Vennett explaining the fallacy of CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) using Jenga blocks, while other concepts are explained by Margot Robbie in a bathtub and chef Anthony Bourdain while cooking. The over-the-top explanations fit in extremely well with Baum’s assertion early on that we’re all too consumed with iPods and celebrities to pay attention to what’s really going on around us, as do the random quick shots of pop culture that appear throughout the film.
The characters McKay chooses to focus on help give us a view into the movie’s world through multiple lenses with whom we can relate. Baum’s concern over what has been done to the American people echoes how many would feel if they knew such sensitive information in advance. Burry looks at the crisis as mere numbers upon first discovering it, later feeling the human element. Vennett just wants to make all the money he can, while Geller and Shipley enter with financial aspirations and exit knowing something needs to be done about such an atrocity.
While there aren’t any showy, awards-bait performances in The Big Short, each role is executed to a tee. Carell’s outspoken Baum and Bale’s socially unsure Burry are both excellently realized. Gosling slides into a slimy investor’s shoes nicely, and all of the supporting characters make the most of the scenes they are given. You can sense a certain level of dedication to getting this right from all of the actors involved.
I’ve already mentioned how well The Big Short takes theoretically boring material and makes it can’t-miss entertainment, but it bears repeating. This isn’t a documentary, so McKay has free reign to be as entertaining as he wants. He also plays fast and loose with dramatic rules, breaking the fourth wall whenever he sees fit and providing those wonderful, celebrity-aided asides. Don’t let any of this fool you, though; the point here is still to educate and keep us all out of shark-infested waters.