***1/2 out of ****
for pervasive strong language and some sexuality/nudity
Released: December 11, 2015 limited; expands December 23
Runtime: 130 minutes
Directed by: Adam McKay
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater, Brad Pitt
The Big Short is ranked #20 (tie) in the Honorable Mention section of my Top Ten List for 2015
People (even the really smart ones) are still trying to make sense of how the economy crashed in 2008 when the housing bubble popped, resulting in the biggest financial crisis of modern times. The Big Short, based on the superbly detailed and narratively framed non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, is as good a primer as you’ll find to help you start wrapping your head around it all.
While this whirring, thrilling depiction is not entirely successful at making the whole disaster easily understood, here’s the irony: that’s basically the whole point. It’s not that the necessary information isn’t all there; it is. It’s that there’s simply way too much of it. It’s all so complex, and it flies at you faster than you can humanly process. If after watching The Big Short you’re still left shaking and scratching your head, well, then you’ve understood the most important point of all.
That isn’t to say it leaves you confused. On the contrary, The Big Short makes the crash of 2008 – and the three years leading up to it – as accessible as it’s ever been (or likely to be). No matter how many details may get lost on you, director Adam McKay (along with his co-screenwriter Charles Randolph) does a wonderful job of helping us get the necessary gist – and be entirely swept up by it along the way, with the help of a stellar cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, and Brad Pitt (who also produces). Together, they take an insanely convoluted issue filled with terms like Mortgage Backed Securities, Subprime Adjustable Rates, Credit Default Swaps, and Collateralized Debt Obligations, and make it all not just fascinating but infuriating.
Most of the world still can’t explain this corrupt mess, but The Big Short tells the story of a small group of loosely-acquainted financial investors, operatives, and dealers who not only understand it; they predicted it. More bizarre still, unable to stop the impending demise of this institutional behemoth, these men did what any self-interested financiers would do: they looked to make a profit from it.
As the big banks grew to a size that was “too big to fail” – snorting mortgages like cocaine through lucrative but immoral byzantine models that created the housing bubble – these men bet against them (and, by extension, the nation’s homeowners). In the most insidious form of Crony Capitalism ever, private industry and government bureaucracies colluded to game the system, but these guys gamed the gamed system. They bet – into the hundreds of millions of dollars – that the foundation upon which a national and global economy was built (via a housing industry that had never in history lost money before, let alone collapse) would all come crumbling down. And it did.
While often a challenge to track, McKay does a better job of laying it all out than anyone has a right to expect. Necessarily, he holds our hands through the myriad of data, jargon, and complexity in clear, articulate ways, including the inventive (and hilarious) device of periodically pausing the narrative to have famous and/or sexy people simplify dense algorithms.
This is a major achievement for McKay, a guy who’s career has been built on absurd comic collaborations with Will Ferrell. His hodgepodge filmmaking still leaves a lot to be desired; it’s all over the place, inexplicably jumping between slick shots and shaky cams, often to the detriment of our ability to keep up. He’s going for a Scorsese-style energy (which is a good tone to mimic), but it can also be a real mess. There’s not so much a directorial vision here as there’s a movie found in the editing room. Still, McKay provides the necessary juice to keep us engaged and entertained.
The cast is impressive, if at times also pushing it (but again, perhaps necessarily so). Bale in particular lays on the Rainman-light a little too thick, and Carell gets tripped up in his affectations (although he does nail some more vulnerable moments), but the heightened exaggeration also helps us to grasp this cluster. We may not comprehend what we just heard, but we can’t miss how these people feel about it, or the alarming implications.
Gosling holds it all together, not only in providing the film’s narrative voice-over but also as a first-rate d-bag slimeball that’s hilariously sure of himself. It’s the best performance here, and it needs to be, as Gosling seamlessly melds the film’s comic and dramatic sensibilities. Of the lesser-knowns – all of whom take advantage of this golden career platform – the standouts are Jeremy Strong (as Carell’s righthand guy Vinnie) and John Magaro (the brains of a duo that teams up with Pitt’s guru). They both make very strong impressions, and I certainly expect to see more of them (Magaro, in fact, is currently in the critical fave Carol, which will begin to expand in the coming weeks).
Is it hard to follow? Yes. But stay with it. The Big Short explains and repeats the same information in a variety of ways. If you don’t catch something the first time, just be patient. Yes, we’re conflicted as we find ourselves rooting for these guys to win their bet against the American public, but it’s impossible not to when you see just how corrupt the whole system is, especially as that system begins to overvalue assets past the legal point, thus undercutting these legitimately made “shorts” that were made.
And as the depth and reach of the most fraudulent Ponzi scheme of our time begins to sink in (along with the arrogance of those who perpetrated it), The Big Short makes a big impact.