[Note: This is a re-post of our review from the AFI Film Festival; The Big Short opens today in select cities]
The Big Short—which concerns four groups of traders who discovered that the housing loans that held up most of the economy were actually built on a series of repackaged, unchecked, awful loans that created the potential for the collapse of the world economy—is the first dramatic film for Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers). It might seem like an odd choice for him to direct but, after initially stumbling out of the gate, it works magnificently. McKay treats The Big Short as vital cinema and it becomes vital cinema. It’s inventive, it’s funny, and it enrages. But most importantly, it informs.
Ultimately, this shouldn’t be a surprise. McKay added animated graphics to the closing credits of his Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg buddy cop comedy, The Other Guys, that highlighted the vice that the wealthy use to put the screw to the average American. Despite being educational, it felt out of place because it didn’t fully fit the project. McKay’s impulse to include that at the end of The Other Guys is but one piece of evidence that the director actually wants to inform the American people about how badly they’re getting screwed by financial systems. The Big Short is the exact story that McKay needs to tell. He is passionate about the subject and The Big Short is exciting, passionate filmmaking.
McKay wants to entertain you, sure, but he also wants you to understand every building block that allowed the market to crash. Big banks have mega forms for their loans that allowed this to happen and McKay breaks down the labyrinth of mumbo-jumbo via fourth-wall explanations. He’s aware that this could very well happen again—because only one person ever went to jail for the fraud that created the economic collapse of the entire world—unless citizens are better informed about how it happened. The banks assume you can’t understand it and—after being bailed out—they’re already creating new terms for the same schemes that caused the mess to begin with.
How does McKay take descriptions of sub-prime loans, CODs, etc. and turn it into bankable entertainment? The same way comic books are becoming the most bankable cornerstone of the film market: world-building. To build that world he has one of the traders, the unreliable one, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) repeatedly break the fourth wall to explain just how unchecked banks had become. Vennett (whose name was changed from Michael Lewis’ book to be more of a composite character) is over-tanned, over-caffeinated and represents the douchey trader of the 21st century. He flashes back to the 1970s to a time when banking was not lucrative or exciting and just involved forms, until one loan broker came up with a scheme to lump housing loans together—preying on the American Dream of owning your own home—and sell them to bidding firms. Once outside entities start making money with the banks through this scheme neither side, of course, can be fully quenched when they make money hand over fist. Inevitably, the bundling scheme starts to create sub-bundles and sub-bundles of loans that get worse and worse, but goes it unchecked by boards who are supposed to monitor the activity because they themselves are worried of losing the bank’s business.
Actually, I don’t need to explain any of this, because the movie carefully does. It’s a big set-up and McKay does the immense opening as a collage. It’s a motif that’s repeated throughout The Big Short—mixing clips of abundant wealth contrasted with destitution and “For Sale” signs—that McKay does much differently than most filmmakers would. McKay inserts pop culture blips—such as a Britney Spears interview, Polyphonic Spree‘s softened cover of an angry Nirvana song, iPhone packaging, viral YouTube videos, etc.—as a reminder of all the noise that we obsess over that diverts our attention away from the corrupt systems of the world, and helps it go unchecked for far too long. McKay also uses pop culture figures to directly define economic terms to the audience that they need to know in order to become as angry as they should. Gosling’s Vennett introduces three different types of pop culture stars, I won’t say who because it spoils the surprise (but I will say, no, McKay doesn’t use frequent collaborator and co-producer Will Ferrell). It’s cute, it’s entertaining, it’s funny, but it’s also a brilliant choice of McKay’s to understand that his audience will be more likely to listen to a pop culture phenomenon than they will a balding economic professor. This approach also has a cutting parallel to McKay’s collage motif: what if pop culture actually gave us information we could use?
Information we can use is the passionate angle that McKay takes, but this isn’t a documentary. McKay has a big cast of stars. And although this is an ensemble piece, they rarely act against each other. The Big Short follows four groups of “weirdos” who discovered the data that banks were hiding and decided to buy up all these awful loans to wager on their failure and the collapse of the government. With the exception of one story, these weirdos didn’t work together, and although it’d be great to see these actors riff off each other, McKay thankfully doesn’t force the story to overlap more than it did in real life.
The wager against sub-prime loans began with hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an awkward genius who has a glass eye, no social skills, calms down by blasting death metal, sleeps on the floor of his office and makes millions and millions of dollars for his clients by finding trends so early there isn’t even a trend yet. Burry also has a clause in his contract that can keep any of his clients from bailing ship because he needs all of their investments to move the market in the way that he predicts. He is the first person to wager millions of people’s money against the banks by gobbling up their worst loan packages (which are given handsome percentages by the banking regulators because they’re all in bed together).
Vennett hears of Burry’s purchases while other traders are out celebrating their supposed easy money from Burry (the lunatic!) and he sets out to find other hedge fund managers who will wager against his very own bank (Vennett also informs us that he never would hang out with these Wall Street douchebags, his real friends are in fashion). This leads him to Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who believes the entire system is corrupt, is pissed off at the world, and after hearing Vennett’s pitch (visualized via Jenga!), wants to believe that Wall Street and the banks are actually this stupid. He’s in.
The fourth party, McKay hilariously introduces using a faked aha moment, when two garage startup financiers who’ve struck it big (Finn Wittrock, John Magaro) stumble upon Vennett’s plan in a bank lobby and then directly tell the audience that’s not how they discovered the info, but it’s more cinematic for them to feel closer to the other members of the movie. It’s meta as hell, but now that we’re in the prestige true story calendar portion of movies, it’s a gleeful nudge from McKay—in his first drama—to point out moments that are either staged or actually happened and seem too real to believe. The two young traders use a retired trader who despises the Wall Street system, but can’t get it out of his own system because he’s so damned good at it (Brad Pitt).
The Big Short covers a lot of ground. It takes a little while, but once you get used to the jittery camerawork, the collage mosaic, and are properly set up within this world, it’s very entertaining. But it also punches you in the gut over and over again. After hearing two hotshot traders talk about the low income people they prey on so that they can continue to keep pumping out loans—Baum steps aside and asks his coworker why they’re confessing. The response? “They’re not confessing, they’re bragging.”
There’s so much smugness and disgusting bragging from the bankers in The Big Short that you do indeed root for these four groups, even though they’re hypocritically attempting to make money off of the collapse of an economic system. It’s Pitt’s old hand who reminds the younger traders the actual implications of what they’re doing, how many people will become unemployed around the world if their predictions actually come true. He asks them not to dance, not to high five when they cash in on the banks failure, it makes them no better than the banks; smarter, sure, but if they’re aware of the implications perhaps they’ll be better off.
The actors all excel. Bale is committed to mannerisms, Gosling is very funny, Pitt is the proper balance of excited and depressed by numbers and money, but it is Carell who steals the movie and is given the biggest character outside of the schemes. He has a backstory of losing a brother to suicide, and he has a heartbreaking line of only offering his brother money as a way to make his life better. There are so many gems in The Big Short that I haven’t been able to touch on (and a few falters, such as Bale’s early flashbacks, some over-emphasis of fluid camerawork can make the dialogue harder to process, etc.), but the biggest takeaway is that McKay does something magnificent with The Big Short because he too is horrified by the system. And he wants us to understand it as best we can. There are laughs, there is tragedy, but The Big Short is that rare movie that uses popular culture to direct our attention to something far more important.