Adam McKay’s polemic against Bernie Madoff may have felt pretty out of place in the credits sequence of his otherwise sublime The Other Guys, but that rage against the financial sector has paid serious dividends five years on. His latest film, and first major ‘drama’ effort, The Big Short is an infectiously furious, sometimes baffling, sometimes brilliant attack on America’s banks and how their immorality and incompetence shattered the world economy. Like an economics dissertation, The Wolf of Wall Street, and a particularly energetic episode of The Office all mashed together, The Big Short is ludicrously scattershot, but it’s still supremely confident filmmaking about an issue that deserves our wrath.
McKay tells the story of the 2007/8 financial crisis through the eyes of a series of outsiders in the financial world, the people who saw the crash coming and managed to make enormous personal profits while the economy fell apart around them. To this end, he’s assembled an exceedingly impressive cast, with Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt headlining the ensemble. If there is a ‘lead’ character, then it’s Carell’s Mark Baum, a moralist crusader suffering from anger management issues. He’s the head of a subsidiary company under the banner of Morgan Stanley, and loves the idea of being able to strike back against corrupt bankers by profiting off of their short-sightedness and idiocy regarding the housing market.
With Baum as the film’s heart, Bale and Pitt each get a shot at being its brain, playing Mike Burry and Ben Rickert, respectively. As Burry, perpetually shoeless and manic, Bale is totally convincing as an analytical genius, but his story fails to engage as much as the other three leads, too immersed in the particular economic details to be exciting. Fortunately, the Carell, Gosling, and Pitt segments are a lot of fun, even with all the technical lingo being thrown about. Gosling’s Jared Vennett, a fourth-wall breaking banker, gets the biggest laughs while also acting as the voice of McKay, explicitly articulating just how hateful the US finance sector is.
Without such a top-rate cast, with great support behind the lead four, the complexity of the subject matter could easily overwhelm the film, but the deep wells of talent and star power keep up the energy of both the story and the audience. It also helps that seeing the underdogs claim victories against the insufferable insiders is incredibly gratifying. The Big Short doesn’t exactly have to work hard to get us on its side, but preaching to the choir can be enjoyably cathartic, especially if you also have something new to tell them.
These new lessons, when not delivered by Gosling’s smarmy voiceover, are given through a series of cutaway scenes in which special guests, all playing themselves, try their best to explain the specifics of the crash through comprehensible analogies. Margot Robbie makes an appearance to explain sub-prime loans, the riskiest choice of these sequences (The Big Short cannot compete on the same front as Scorsese’s take on Wall Street, so invoking a direct comparison doesn’t seem wise), with celebrity chefs and renowned economists also popping up. Combined with the slightly confusing use of stock footage, the direct addresses to the audience exemplify the twitchy lack of conventional focus that defines The Big Short.
In another, less confident, film, this could be a serious criticism, but it’s pulled off with such verve here that it’s impossible to begrudge. Seeing such authentic anger balanced with absurdity and silly entertainment is very rare, and if anyone assumed that McKay’s established sensibilities as a director would prevent him from making an effective Issue Movie, The Big Short is decisive evidence to the contrary.