by Philip Price
In the context of the film it makes perfect sense, but to audiences smothered in cinematic choices this holiday season “The Big Short” is unfortunately one of the more forgettable titles. It helps marginally that the faces on the poster are four of Hollywood's heaviest hitters with Brad Pitt bringing in the biggest pull (and ironically putting in the least amount of screen time), but even this won't be enough to distract moviegoers from what might be a saturated market made worse by a complicated story that has been relayed in sardonic terms by the director of ‘Anchorman.’ Of course, if you've payed attention to any of Adam McKay's work you'd know the director of ‘Anchorman’ and other such Will Ferrell comedies including ‘Talladega Nights’ and “The Other Guys” is actually the perfect choice for a film that desires to tell of the housing market crash that occurred in America in 2008. It is a story in need of sharp social commentary, of a mind that might give the boring numbers game an insightful twist and McKay is able to deliver on all fronts by crafting a final product that is as funny and stinging as it is heartbreaking and tragic - a detriment, almost, to the American spirit. And yet, throughout the over two-hour runtime the film never ceases to be breathlessly entertaining. There is so much going on, so many words being spoken, so many deals being made, and so many new characters being introduced at such rapid rates that we never have time to settle in, but rather stay perched on the edge of our seats. With its hands in so many different pots it would be easy for the “The Big Short” to go off the rails, but somewhat unexpectedly the film finds a certain groove in its latter half that, while not matching the frenetic speed of the first two acts, brings in the necessary levity that strikes the perfect balance between both the ridiculousness of the situation and the dire real world consequences. McKay, working from his and Charles Randolph's screenplay that is based on the book by Michael Lewis, is able to remain so laser focused on what makes these characters so interesting in their own right that the fact they exist in this compelling real world situation is only icing on the cake.
Told through three separate perspectives on the same incident, but narrated by Ryan Gosling's Jared Venette we are eased into the introduction of the housing market crisis through the guy who discovered it nearly three years prior to it actually occurring, Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale). Burry is something of an odd guy, a socially awkward, heavy metal enthusiast with a glass eye, Burry keeps himself holed up in his office at the hedge fund company he founded. Described as something of a "risk-avoider," Burry essentially finds out the system has messed up in a big way and happened to pick up on it before anyone else by reading into the details of hundreds of thousands of mortgages. In doing so, Burry goes out to some of the biggest banks in New York City and bets against the housing market which seems foolish to everyone else given the housing market has always been solid. He will have to pay dues to the banks in the meantime, but when the collapse eventually happens in the last quarter of 2007 he will make his money back and then some-a lot of some. This brings us back to Venette who heard about some guy betting against the banks and the housing market and was the only one smart enough to research why someone would do such a thing. Venette then inadvertently tipped off Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a money manager at the Greenwich, Connecticut-based FrontPoint Partners LLC, a unit of Morgan Stanley, who turns out to be the only one that buys Venette's story. Meanwhile, upstart brokers Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) are made aware of the impending bubble burst and do their best to get in on making money off of the failing American economy with the help of an old school wall-street companion by the name of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
While the story is key here and the point of the overall film being to advocate that more needs to be done both to those who got away with pulling such a stunt and to ensure that this doesn't happen again, there is no way the film would be as effective without the characters. The characters are what we come to invest in here and the performances by the four leading movie stars sell us on the fact we, as a society, need to stop paying so much attention to them and start looking really hard at the people who are pulling things over on us, the middle class, the unsuspecting victims. In order to make this point as boldly as he can, McKay enlists the likes of pop culture staples like Margot Robbie, chef Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to deliver dialogue that more or less provides analogies for what exactly is going on with the banks, mortgages, CDO's and AAA ratings that all sound like a foreign language to the majority of mainstream America. It is both an acknowledgement of our misplaced interests while smartly subverting those interests to better help us understand the complicated jargon that is being thrown around constantly in the film.
As something of our surrogate into this world, Gosling is bar none the funniest guy at the table. The actor's ability to both be condescending, but completely forthright is the definition of the oxymoron that is a lovable douche. As outspoken and conflicted as Carell's Mark Baum is, and he has some really funny moments, he can't touch Gosling's timing in this role. Still, it is when both Carell and Gosling are on screen together, matching their egos, intelligence and credibility that sparks really begin to fly. Whereas Venette is our surrogate into this world, Baum is the moral compass. Baum is the guy that gets the grandstand moment where he asks us all when being a fraud became okay despite knowing it will never work out for the best in the end. It is nothing short of definitive and Carell sells everything he has in him to become this man every time he's on screen. Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong form a solid supporting team around Carell as well-servicing the film with added running gags and necessary insight. Like the character of Burry, Bale is secluded from the rest of the cast forcing him to perform something of a one-man show. While he might have the least to do in terms of action, the arc of Burry going from this cushioned, enthusiastic wunderkind of the financial world to someone made sick by having to go against the grain is genuinely felt. There is a particular scene in which Burry faces off against his boss (played by Tracey Letts) that gives us the scope of the type of persecution he faces, but the majority of the character arc must be conveyed through Bale's facial expressions. With such restraints, Burry sometimes only feels as if he's present because he's the guy who uncovered the impending doomsday, but Bale makes his presence all the more vital-proving the real guilt of being right when that means so much wrong will be taken out on innocent people. Relaying this feeling throughout the entire film is Pitt's Rickert who has been out of the financial game for some time, but is willing to help out Shipley and Geller if only to prove to them that making bunches of money is not what they thought it to be. Pitt, the most low-key and reserved of the performers here, is an idealist and may himself be an ideal.
To be completely honest, Adam McKay has been making this type of movie for years now, he just hid them under the guise of broad comedy. One can look at any of his Ferrell collaborations and find some kind of social commentary that ironically would sell what it was lampooning to the same audiences that would line up for an earnest buddy cop or NASCAR film. That McKay has moved on to what is now simply classified more as a "drama" rather than a "comedy" doesn't seem to have changed his approach much as “The Big Short” is still a frequently funny movie with McKay's hallmark sensibilities very much intact. The real difference between “The Big Short” and anything McKay has made in the past is that this time around he's been granted the ability to react to the material he's examining and get angry with the fact that what's been done is not only outrageous and wrong, but that it's even more shameful because no one was ever held accountable, save for the one banker with a Muslim name who went to prison for an infraction most bankers were committing on a daily basis. Whereas something like ‘Anchorman 2’ (which I very much enjoyed) simply made an effort to point and laugh at the devolving state of mainstream media without offering any real reaction, resolution, or moral compass, “The Big Short” takes Lewis' book and crafts a multiple arc story that focuses in on characters who have well-defined moral compasses and who come to their decisions to take on the big banks for the banks greed and lack of foresight rather than for the explicit reason of becoming rich. We come to root for these guys, hoping they win so that some kind of right might come of exposing all that is wrong in this purely fraudulent system despite them winning meaning we're rooting against our own well-being. That McKay is able to bottle all of these emotions into a single film: the anger, the disgust, the outrageous quality of the situation and make us feel all of them while keeping us consistently entertained is a marvel in and of itself, but that it also teaches us more than we probably ever cared to learn is invaluable.