“Let’s not talk about my margins, by the way, being big and fat. That’s a nice shirt, do they make it for men?”
Perhaps the biggest issue with the 2008 financial collapse is that there wasn't enough outrage from the American people. We had been told for so long that our banking system was such a complex quagmire of numbers and legalese, that when it all collapsed, we just kind of stood idly by and scratched our heads. At its core, the new film The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis' book of the same name, seeks to light a fire under its audience that will shock them out of complacency, and in that regard, the film is a complete and total success.
Writer/director Adam McKay's hit 2010 comedy The Other Guys dipped its toe in the outrage pond regarding the financial crisis, and the economics lesson in that film's closing credits probably goes a long way toward explaining why McKay is at the helm of this, his first film without Will Ferrell. McKay is a much savvier writer and director than his previous output might indicate, but unlike his contemporaries such as Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips, McKay has shown demonstrable growth in both areas with each subsequent outing. Apatow in particular seems to just be making the same film over and over again, but McKay isn't interested in following that path.
The film follows, as narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) calls them, a group of outsiders and weirdos who saw this entire housing collapse years before it actually happened. Vennett, along with Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and several others decided to exploit American banks by investing in their failure, and which basically allowed them to profit when the housing bubble burst. Playing as an antidote to Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, the film will likely work best for those who felt cheated by that film's protagonist for treating the audience like children who couldn't possibly understand investing.
Several times, The Big Short stops cold and allows beautiful celebrities like Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and more to explain difficult financial concepts in layman's terms. It's a brilliant conceit that pays off handsomely, not simply because it actually works, but also because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom regarding how boring it is to talk numbers. In fact, if the film succeeds at any one thing in particular, it's proving that lofty concepts can still make for great entertainment when they're written smartly and delivered well by a talented ensemble.
As the first man to figure out that the housing market was going to collapse, Christian Bale plays perhaps the most pitiable role of his career, and if you're thinking that someone cut from the gods like Christian Bale can't convincingly play a loser, watch what he does with only a smile and a glass eye in this film. His work here is revelatory. No less worthy of praise is Steve Carell, whose Mark Baum becomes the de facto protagonist of the film based solely on screen time. Carell turned a lot of heads with his quiet work in last year's Foxcatcher, but with a role like this that balances empathy and comedy, Carell is firmly in his comfort zone and he hits it out of the park.
The ensemble is fantastic across the board from heavy hitters like Brad Pitt, who takes on a very non-Brad Pitt role here, to the trio of Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, and Jeremy Strong as Mark Baum's brain trust. Melissa Leo is also outstanding in her one, jaw dropping scene set at the offices of Standard & Poor's. Adam McKay's script, co-written with Charles Randolph, is whip smart and hilarious, never overstaying its welcome and never keeping the audience at arm's length. It invites you in, does a great job of making complex terms digestible, and gives just about every member of the ensemble a chance to shine.
The Big Short is a fast talking, free wheeling good time, until it isn't anymore. That's why I think it's the anti-Wolf of Wall Street. This film knows exactly how outrageous the behavior of these various bankers and crooks was, and gives sufficient time for the outrage to build and finally be cathartically purged through laughter. Like all great satire, it holds a mirror up to our world and makes us laugh at things that should otherwise make us cry. I look forward to seeing it again and would not hesitate for a moment to call it one of the best films of 2015.