It’s a strange anomaly that the man behind Anchorman 2 – and whose first five films were all Will Ferrell comedies – direct and co-write one of the most poignant, revealing, and enraging movies of 2015. Adam McKay, the man responsible for Anchorman and The Other Guys, is that person, crafting one of the most entertaining and best films of the year.
Based on Michael Lewis’ book (he also wrote Moneyball), The Big Short is a grand attempt at explaining the U.S. financial crisis in a scathing look at financier callousness and oversight that caused the housing market to collapse in 2008.
On some level, The Big Short could be compared to Martin Scorsese’s 2013 epic of reckless decadence, The Wolf of Wall Street. But what Wolf lacks is the avoidance of obtuse economic jargon that The Big Short makes clear to its audience. This film is a classier and more respectable take on the American financial crisis than Wolf, which indulged more in the decadent behavior of seedy individuals mired in sex, drugs, and ridiculous cash flow, and, really, the point-of-view of one of its focus, Jordan Belfort. That being said, I dare say that McKay’s film is far superior in many ways to Wolf’s lengthy tale of excess.
The Big Short tells the story of four financial insiders who monitor the housing economy and had predicted its collapse by 2007. They believe the housing industry was in such terrible shape that if they were to invest in a credit default swap market they could reap the benefits. At center is the brilliant, if eccentric, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who manages to quantify the risks that such a scheme would require to dizzying levels. He researches and monitors the market, and in doing so predicts the year and the quarter in which the collapse will take place.
To make matters worse, the mishandling of CDOs (collateralized debt obligation, one of several terms the film educates viewers on) are lumped together and incorrectly shielded via false AAA ratings, becoming accelerants to the inevitable collapse. Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) gets the tip, inspiring him to do the same. Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, who also produces the flm), a retired banker, assists two neophytes exploit the same flaw that has been explored by Vennet, despite his moral judgments. Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hedge fund manager with a gift for pointing out flaws, ends up caught up in the scheme as well.
If any of that seems confusing, don’t panic; McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s script will help clarify the financial veil of terminology that few people could ever hope to understand. With the aid of celebrity cameos (including Anthony Bourdain, Margot Robbie, and Selena Gomez), who randomly pop up to help explain obtuse financial terminology in layman terms, the film feels refreshing and ambitious, aiming high and hitting its target with equanimity.
The script is momentous, a powerful and effective expose that at once seems all too familiar, yet still refreshing and illuminating at the same time. The fourth-wall is constantly broken by Gosling’s Vennett, the blasé nature of financiers inability to foresee the housing collapse, or perhaps their callousness to realistically care to stop it, all connect with unsurpassed confidence.
The film offers fantastic performances from Christian Bale and Steve Carell, the latter continuing to redefine his career with complex roles that are substantial. Coming a year after his Oscar-nominated performance in Foxcatcher, Carell is definitely a standout. But this is an ensemble, and these actors deliver their lines with zippy urgency and pinpoint comedic timing that creates not only a funny movie, but one capable of balancing the seriousness of the subject matter in a well-balanced cocktail of screenwriting.
The film is lucid and focused, getting right to the point as we watch the economic crisis inflate and explode in front of our very eyes. McKay’s direction is meticulous and high-brow, traversing through the trenches of the financial world while breaking down the fourth wall, making finance somewhat palpable for the common moviegoer. Even though he’s well out of his usual comfort zone, McKay proves here there’s more he can do than simply generate sophomoric comedies. The complexity of his direction is something that needs to be acknowledged, and he does extremely great work in this comedy-drama.
The Big Short is a lot of things: fast and erratic, entertaining and engrossing, as serious as it is funny. Above all else, it’s an unrelenting portrait of the machinations of the U.S. economy and the hand that bankers and financiers hold on the nation’s political and economic sustainability. Here is a perfect storm of Hollywood’s big money, big stars, and a well-known director taking chances and against type. McKay’s film not just removes the veil of a financial crisis that happened under our noses, but also reveals what he’s capable of as a director.