On its face, The Big Short seems destined to fail like the housing market that is the basis of the movie's riches-to-rags story. It is a Hollywood film about the worldwide financial crisis of the last decade, and if that premise didn’t turn you away already, the esoteric investment jargon required to explain how the markets melted might ordinarily make your head spin. This risky bet had even longer odds as the first drama from Adam McKay, the director of juvenile comedies such as Anchorman and Step Brothers.
The Big Short overcomes those obstacles in impressive fashion, succeeding as both a sobering deconstruction of the financial crisis and a surprisingly entertaining film. And it has more in common with McKay’s previous work than you might expect.
Based on the 2010 nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short focuses on four individuals who realized in the mid-2000s that the American housing market was primed to collapse — and did everything they could to profit from it. (In the film, some names have been changed to protect the guilty.)
It all begins with Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager who examines thousands of individual mortgages and figures out that the borrowers will likely default on those loans in a few years. So he invests more than a billion dollars across multiple banks in bets that will pay off only if the mortgages do indeed fail. The banks take those bets because the wagers are made against the housing market, the safest and most stable investment in American history to that point.
Burry is an outsider on multiple levels: He’s a former neurosurgeon, and Asperger’s syndrome makes him a social pariah. Bale gives an understated, eminently watchable performance as Burry, playing up the man’s quirks and his smartest-guy-in-the-room smugness without veering into the ridiculous. That’s no small task when your character is hitting drumsticks against the back of his head.
If Burry is the analytical brain of The Big Short, Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is its grief-stricken heart. Baum runs a team of three analysts, one of whom gets wind of the opportunity presented by Burry’s idea. The group is egged on by Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), an alpha-male banker bro whose promises of massive returns — based on Burry’s plan — seem too good to be true. Baum and his cohorts remain skeptical, so they decide to do some more digging.
Baum is the stand-in for the audience here, investigating how safe Burry’s bet really is by asking increasingly incredulous questions about the health of the housing market. This begins with a terrific sequence in which Vennett uses a tower of Jenga blocks to explain just how shaky the market’s foundation is, illustrating to Baum’s company and to the viewer that everything is about to come tumbling down. Even more impactful is a trip to suburban Miami in which a real estate agent lists values around half a million dollars for homes that nobody is actually living in.
The Big Short goes to great lengths to put the collapse’s contributing factors into layman’s terms, employing Vennett as a narrator — along with celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez — in fourth-wall-breaking sequences that represent complicated financial concepts with metaphors that anyone can understand. These segments have a more lighthearted tone than the rest of the film, including sarcastic definitions on the screen of terms like “collateralized debt obligation,” delivering the Wall Street lingo with a necessary spoonful of sugar.
While McKay was smart to include those scenes, The Big Short’s cinematography sometimes detracts from its message. Director of photography Barry Ackroyd brings his documentary sensibilities to the film, often shooting with an inconsistent focus on the actors. The kinetic style is presumably meant to lend an additional layer of realism to this true story, and it does succeed in livening up a film that’s filled with people talking at each other in offices, but it’s more distracting than useful.
What’s more impressive is the screenplay from McKay and Charles Randolph, which moves swiftly between the two aforementioned storylines and a third featuring Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), an eccentric retired banker who mentors two young investors looking to step up their game. It is Rickert who recognizes the enormity of what all the bankers in the film are doing: betting that the American housing market will collapse, that millions of ordinary people will lose their homes, their jobs, their pensions and more.
That is perhaps the most striking element of The Big Short: The protagonists are not heroes, and we are not meant to identify with them. All of them knowingly bet against the American people and make out like bandits, regardless of how conflicted they feel about doing so.
It’s so astounding that it becomes absurdly hilarious; you laugh at these greedy buffoons to keep from crying. Carell, in particular, is tremendous in this respect: Every time you think he can’t possibly look any more gobsmacked at how broken the system is, he goes further. And yet, as shocked as he is that any of this is allowed to happen, it’s not like he goes to the authorities; instead, he invests more, because he can’t help himself. Who would turn down a sure bet, and make less money than they could?
That’s the fundamental message of The Big Short, and McKay gets his point across with aplomb. The movie depicts the risky practices at every level of the housing market — from the real estate brokers giving out mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them, to the agencies slapping false ratings on securities, to the clueless and duplicitous Wall Street banks — that led to the crisis. McKay’s target is nothing short of capitalism itself, and the film’s crushing conclusion, with its images of the Great Recession, is a damning indictment of that institution.
The Big Short premieres in theaters on Dec. 11.