by Lee Purvey
The Big Short’s sticky hypocrisy lies in its choice of characters. If its incisive denouement is any indication, the aspirations of Adam McKay’s new issue dramedy are basically populist. In his closing lament, resident good guy polemicist Mark Baum (Steve Carell) describes a parallel world in which the 2007-08 financial crisis spelled an end to the worst in American capitalism, before pulling this illusive tapestry out from under our feet. And yet, McKay’s heroes (Baum included) are as distant from the crisis’ worldwide aftershocks -- in the U.S., 10 percent unemployment rates, plummeting average incomes and housing values -- as the bankers who were the recession’s real authors. Indeed, while the dust was settling around Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, Baum and his associates were part of a small Wall Street minority getting incredibly rich.
Director: Adam McKay
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt
Writers: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay, Michael Lewis (book)
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
Editor: Hank Corwin
Music: Nicholas Britell
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Rudy Eisenzopf, Peter Epstein, Steve Carell, Leslie Castay, Tracy Letts, Marisa Tomei, Adepero Oduye, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Stanley Wong, Finn Witrock, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan, Lyle Brocato, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez
US Theatrical Release: December 11, 2015
US Distributor: Paramount Pictures
With a trio of diffracted storylines that interact but never actually overlap, McKay builds a formidable cast almost entirely off of the Hollywood A-list. There’s Michael Burry (the unsurprisingly excellent Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager with a deadpan approach to business and a habit of blasting heavy metal in his corner office. Burry is among the first to predict the inevitable failure of the subprime mortgages propping up the housing market and throws millions of his fund’s dollars into shorting these loans (essentially betting that they will eventually default). Meanwhile, Jared Vennett, a Deutsche Bank trader with a chip on his shoulder, catches wind of Burry’s investments and starts shopping a similar pitch around town. The only person who doesn’t laugh Vennett (Ryan Gosling) out of the room is Baum, a sharp but unhappy Wall Street veteran who runs a more or less autonomous unit under the ownership of Morgan Stanley. The ensemble is rounded out by Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), two twenty-something financial novices with their own private investment company who stumble across a copy of Vennett’s proposal in the lobby of a big bank (Vennett’s voiceover cheekily clarifies that this is not what actually happened, the company in reality having been tipped off by an acquaintance in the industry). Under the guidance of a Wall Street insider turned hippie prepper (Brad Pitt), these two soon join in on the party.
The players thereby established (one of the cinematic touchstones here being the gangster film -- a choice that feels more and more appropriate as the story unfolds), McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph pull off a nice gradual reveal over the film’s second act, the maverick speculators learning the full extent of Wall Street’s crime and ignorance at the same pace as the viewer. Towards this end, Baum and his team travel to Florida, where they find brand new suburbs standing empty and a couple of doltish mortgage peddlers (Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen) who target immigrants and strippers to unload high-risk housing loans. Later, both Baum’s team and Geller and Shipley’s company arrive in Las Vegas for the American Securitization Forum, uncovering a vast network of synthetic loans built around the same unstable mortgages. Wherever they look, the shorters find a culture of collusion and shortsighted greed, implicating everyone from the predatory foot soldiers pushing subprime mortgages to unqualified buyers, to the bank heads who slickly repackage these bad loans to score good credit ratings from crooked rating agencies. (Carell is truly the perfect foil for this rapacious and fraudulent world, his jaded misanthropy fading into an outraged, hopeless decency the more he learns -- though the film could do without a barely indulged subplot concerning his brother’s recent suicide.)
This is a lot of information to handle, but from the start The Big Short (which was adapted from Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name) is willing to make artistic concessions in the interest of clarity. Considering the topical premise and thespian talent on hand, the choice of McKay as director might seem like an odd one. This is a filmmaker who eschews the broad brush and reaches straight for the paint roller. All of McKay’s five features to date have starred a late-career Will Ferrell, if that’s any indication of their level of subtlety. But, more importantly, all of these films have also brought in healthy returns at the box office. McKay knows how to engage an audience and, insofar as his film serves as a corrective to the massive misunderstanding of a universally relevant issue, he is the right filmmaker for the job.
Rather than try to reinvent himself as a straight-faced auteur, McKay dances around his project’s inherent didacticism with humorous self-parody. When tricky financial concepts need explanation, McKay brings in celebrity personalities -- as well as one actual expert -- to define them (“whenever you hear ‘subprime,’ think ‘shit,’” quips the comely Australian star Margot Robbie from a Jacuzzi, wearing nothing but a blanket of suds). Less successful is The Big Short’s visual strategy, which operates according to a similar ethos of engagement over dignity. The film vomits up a near-constant stock footage collage, full of home videos and celebrity interviews detached from any semantic agenda other than evoking a time and place. Alongside a predictable aughts-centric soundtrack of Top 40 hits and a script that sometimes drifts into sitcom territory, this unsubtle approach threatens to derail the film instead of shepherding viewers into its larger political project, as intended.
But The Big Short is that rare film whose success must be measured, finally, in the box office. What remains after you strip away all the Hollywood trappings -- the Scorsese-lite editing, the Ludacris, the handsome white faces -- is a simmering indictment of Wall Street greed and a lesson too important to forget this election season, but one which many never really understood in the first place. The irresponsibility of a few men and women had all too real consequences for hundreds of millions around the world, and The Big Short’s first priority is to speak to those people -- the victims. This film isn’t perfect, but it isn’t really meant to be. What matters is that it’s seen; and this critic, at least, hopes that it is.