Released: 22nd January 2016 (UK)
Director: Adam McKay
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Steve Carrell
There’s comedy in tragedy. Of course, those inside the tragedy probably won’t see the comedy. None of the characters in Adam McKay’s new film The Big Short, an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book of the same name about the 2008 financial crisis, are laughing by the end. But the film contains enough elements of comedy to get itself nominated as Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globes.
What’s great about the film is how McKay is able to balance the tragic and comedic elements. The film starts with a bunch of underdogs. There’s Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the first guy to figure out the housing market is unstable and will collapse sometime during the second quarter of 2007. Then there’s Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a trader in charge of a hedge fund who is alerted to Burry’s findings by investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and Baum’s team at the hedge fund, who are just as cynical as Baum himself. There’s also Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), young investors looking to make it big, who also stumble upon Burry’s findings and turn to retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them out. What all these guys figure out, first Burry, then the others, is that not only is the housing market unstable, but the people in charge — the banks, the ratings companies, the businessmen who created the CDO bubble (collateralized debt obligations) — are covering it all up. So we’ve got the little guys — Burry, Baum and the rest — versus the system. Good stuff.
But this is based on a true story — the economy really did collapse in 2008 when the housing bubble broke. That means even though the eccentric and likable characters who figure all of this out are correct (while admittedly also trying to profit from the banks’ mistakes at the expense of the public), lots of people lost their homes, their jobs and their money, while the people responsible were never really punished and the ones who knew before everyone else — our heroes of this story — got rich.
It’s the sort of emotional truth I want in the movies I see. This emotion is perpetuated by the actors’ great performances, with Carell and Bale at the forefront. Carell’s character, Mark Baum, has the most trouble reconciling with the truth. Baum and his employees really did believe in the free market, and are forced to face the horrors of the corrupted system, which brings the story and the characters down to a much-needed human level in a film that would otherwise be populated by investment guys doing money and investment things the general audience probably doesn’t really understands.
Like I said, though, there’s comedy in tragedy, and McKay really goes for it here. It’s not the brand of comedy seen in Anchorman or Step Brothers, films McKay is best known for. Complete with plenty of fourth wall breaks that fortunately don’t overstay their welcome, The Big Short handles the sensitive material by using comedy to explain Wall Street lingo and the sobering drama that dominated 2008. Though Gosling’s character is the narrator, other (mostly) secondary characters talk directly to the camera to clear things up for the audience. Even celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain make appearances as themselves to explain some of the more complex Wall Street lingo. I don’t know about you, but back in 2008, I was a clueless eighth grader more concerned about the next Harry Potter movie release date than the fact that the economy was crashing at that very moment. These breaks in the narrative may be glorified hand-holding, but I don’t mind it simply because a) it’s hilarious, and b) mortgages and CDOs and economic bubbles need to be explained in a way the general audience can easily understand.
The film also handles its characters pretty well. Even though we mostly see Baum’s family life, subtle hints about the personal lives of the rest of the characters are sprinkled throughout the film. The picture that Vinny — one of Baum’s go-to guys are the hedge fund — glances at of his daughter before he decides to take a gamble and trust Vennett. Or the side story of the family that two of Baum’s guys knock on the door of, and later are seen living out of their car after they lose their home.
McKay cleverly uses a mix of news broadcasts, radio sound bites, YouTube videos, news footage, and various other forms of media during the years 2005 to 2008 to help tell the story.
The only real thing I have a slight problem with is Gosling’s character. Though Gosling is a great narrator, his character is mostly used only to educate the audience. The character doesn’t go much further than that, and is left out of the epilogue at the end. It’s a only a slight problem I have, because Vennett’s motivations are clear from the beginning, so when he says “I never said I was the hero of this story,” I’m left agreeing with him.
In general, McKay has put together a great adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book. But what really makes the film stand out is the way it successfully brings it down to that human, emotional level. It’s a jarring way to present a story, but McKay does it skillfully. It’s not a simple good guys vs. bad guys story, but rather one where even though the good guys win, innocent people end up suffering.