Adam McKay is angry, and righteously so. The director of The Big Short, a rollicking adaptation of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction examination of the financial crisis, has taken that book’s disparate threads and thrown them together onscreen, and the messiness feels almost justified. Just 10 years ago, a market catastrophe brewed and was largely ignored because there were so many moving pieces to put together. McKay seeks to find order, but at the same time, he’s taking cynical delight in the chaos. He’s created a film that is fun to watch, but based on themes that are terrifying to consider.
Lewis’s book covered Wall Street’s astute few who foresaw the 2008 recession and “shorted,” or bet against it, making billions off of the country’s economic ruin. McKay tells those same stories, and yet at times it feels like The Big Short can’t decide if its protagonists are heroes or villains. Here are people who saw through the lies perpetrated at every level of the booming markets in the mid-2000s, each of them charming renegades in their own ways, but in profiting off of it, they were really just symptoms of a larger problem. McKay shoots every phone call and boardroom meeting so kinetically and lumps in wild dashes of humor, but by the end of the film, he wants the audience holding their heads in their hands with dismay. It mostly works.
Our heroes, such as they are, include Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an anti-social savant who nearly drives his hedge fund into bankruptcy by making a billion-dollar bet that the housing market will collapse; Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a slimy trader who’s been ostracized for telling his colleagues the sky is falling; Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a retired trader and paranoiac convinced of Wall Street’s underlying corruption; and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a phlegmatic money manager who’s the closest thing the film has to a hero. Each of them independently identify the ticking time-bomb of subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations, ignored by Wall Street’s rating agencies; only Baum seems the least bit angry about what their coming collapse implies.
If the very phrase “collateralized debt obligations” sends you to Wikipedia, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph have a solution for that—The Big Short does its best to parcel out information about each element of the crisis as plainly as possible, even enlisting surprise celebrity cameos to break the fourth wall and talk straight to the audience about credit-default swaps and the like. This is part of the freewheeling charm that made McKay such an exciting voice in comic filmmaking over the last 10 years—he’s collaborated with Will Ferrell on films like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, all of which contained similar mad flourishes.
But it often feels like McKay is working his hardest to spice up a film that mostly consists of phone conversations. His camera zooms wildly into characters’ faces, slowing down and blurring as if succumbing to a fit of rage, turning even the most basic exchanges of dialogue into action scenes. His passion for the material, and fury at the system he’s portraying, is palpable, but The Big Short is at its best when it slows down for a second. A sequence where Baum and his team, exploring the stability of the sub-prime market, visit an almost entirely vacated tract of new homes in Miami is weighted with a compassion that most other scenes lack. That’s necessary—you don’t want the film to have too much compassion for its blood-sucking ensemble—but the wild lurches in tone can be exhausting.
Some of the cast are sleepwalking, clearly more interested in the themes being discussed than the roles themselves. Pitt, in a smaller role, mostly mumbles and broods; Bale does a lot with a role that consists of his character sitting alone in an office listening to death metal and ignoring his emails. Gosling is smarmily funny, somehow simultaneously magnetic and repulsive; after years wandering the halls of mediocre art cinema, it’s wonderful to see him cut loose again. Carell is one-note, playing the kind of millionaire who feels he has free range to express his fury and disgust to anyone he interacts with, but as a surrogate for McKay and the audience, he’s a vital presence, and the only character in the film who has a real emotional arc.
There are moments in The Big Short which feel almost absurdly on the nose. In one scene, Melissa Leo pops up as a representative of the ratings agencies which continued to slap sub-prime mortgages with triple-A credit ratings even as the market was openly festering. In case you don’t get how short-sighted she is, McKay has her wearing wraparound dark glasses, recovering from some kind of eye surgery, literally squinting into the dark as she’s confronted with a catastrophe her organization helped create. It’s unbelievable—but that’s McKay’s point. In almost every scene, you can feel the director gesturing to the audience, asking, “Can you believe this happened?” With every scene, he’s delighted and horrified to tell you, it absolutely did.