Published on January 6th, 2016 | by Clint Davis
The Big Short 
Summary: The story of the 2008 housing crisis is told with manic energy and a cast of A-list leading men. Unfortunately, the academic subject matter will alienate most audience members who don't know — or care — about the ins and outs of finance.
R | 130 min.
Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph (based on Michael Lewis’ book)
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Toward the end of The Big Short, there’s a scene where we see a character flipping through channels on TV. As he lazily scans the dial, he passes MTV’s The Hills, a press conference of Barry Bonds denying his use of performance-enhancing drugs and then a split-second shot of Lance Armstrong on a passing channel. After clicking through these stations, the character settles on a news report about impending troubles for one of America’s biggest banks.
Those fleeting images on his TV screen sum up what this film is all about: fraud.
The Big Short is a high-energy dramedy about the 2008 American financial crisis. It tells the separate stories of three groups of financial geniuses who saw the economic collapse coming and were able to make millions by essentially betting against the stability of the U.S. housing market.
Just like The Hills wasn’t really a show about reality and Bonds & Armstrong weren’t really the natural athletes they appeared to be, the American housing market wasn’t nearly as solid as almost everyone believed in 2007.
The Big Short is truly an ensemble film. There is no true “star” of the movie, but rather a cast of actors who must pull equal weight in telling the story. If you were forced to pick a lead character, it would be Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale). Burry is depicted as an oddball in the world of high-stakes finance. He’s a former physician who decided to quit medicine to run his own hedge fund in California. He’s not well-coiffed, wears a T-shirt to work, doesn’t wear shoes and listens to Metallica at full volume in his office. Oh — and he also has Asperger syndrome and a glass eye.
Bale wears Burry’s eccentricities on his sleeve in his steady performance but avoids turning the character into a sideshow cartoon. Bale’s turn makes Burry into the most sympathetic character of The Big Short — and also the one with the most heart. His Golden Globe nomination for the performance was well deserved.
But my favorite acting performance in this film came from Steve Carell, who plays Mark Baum, the head of a New York hedge fund with a temper that’s short like leprechauns. Baum is characterized as an overly suspicious asshole but Carell plays him with a breadth of emotional range that allows the audience to simultaneously root for and despise him when he finally cashes in on his bet against the American economy. Baum was given the most human backstory of any of the characters in The Big Short but that’s not to say there’s much background detail. This movie is short on characters but long on information and style.
The third major player in the film’s story is actually a duo. A pair of eager young investors also see the housing bubble’s impending explosion and decide to bet against it. These characters are played by Finn Wittrock of FX’s American Horror Story and John Magaro of David Chase’s film Not Fade Away. I was impressed with both Wittrock and Magaro; they seemed to each get into their roles and worked well as essentially a tandem character. It likely would have been easier for one actor to soar in a single role that combined the attributes of both of these parts, but in a script that deals with actual people — albeit with changed names — it’s difficult to tamper too much.
Toss in Brad Pitt as a paranoid mentor to that aforementioned duo, Ryan Gosling as a questionable stock trader and an underused Marisa Tomei as Baum’s wife and you’ve got one of the best casts of 2015.
As good as these actors may be, their performances don’t mean much if the movie’s story is impossible to follow. The Big Short uses a ton of financial jargon in trying to explain the confusing concepts that move its plot forward. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street connected with large audiences because it wasn’t really about the ins and outs of Wall Street trading, but was instead about how status can make someone reject their own identity and the toxic contagion that is greed. Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street succeeded because it wasn’t a primer to getting rich in business but was an extremely well-acted assault on the viewer’s senses that gave us a real sense of what the rock-and-roll lifestyle of unscrupulous finance can be like.
The Big Short is much more academic in its execution than either of those two films. For the first 15 minutes of the picture, I felt like I was watching an energetic documentary about the American economy, narrated by Ryan Gosling. We’re hit with a lot of file news footage of real events throughout this movie, which adds to its docudrama approach, but those clips only distracted me from what was already an intricate plot to follow. I’m not a homeowner and I know very little about economic practices so I had a hard time keeping up with — or caring — about the film’s central premise. On the other hand, my wife, who was an economics student and is fascinated by such things, loved the movie.
If writer-director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers) and co-writer Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs) were aiming to teach the masses about what caused the 2008 housing crisis, they may have succeeded but that doesn’t make for exciting cinema. The film’s ending prognosis is so bleak and pessimistic that I’m not sure why they felt this story needed to be turned into a movie. It doesn’t provide answers as to how this type of crisis could be prevented again, other than to hope that people on Wall Street stop being greedy and “stupid,” as several characters call them.
I’m not sure if this film signals a sea change in McKay’s career but he’s proven with The Big Short that he can make a movie that carries real weight. To this point, McKay has been extremely successful in making goofy, big-budget comedies with Will Ferrell (The Big Short is the first movie he’s made without Ferrell in the cast). The comedies he’s made are beloved by fans and have been quoted constantly in popular culture, but is he destined to become a dramatic filmmaker who is loved by critics and award-voting committees? This is far from a perfect film and comes off at times as the experiment of a director who’s had a lot of ambitious creative ideas floating around in his head for years and was finally given a chance to unleash them.
Special kudos go to McKay and the film’s producers for recruiting Hank Corwin to be the editor for The Big Short. Corwin is a master of managing what seems like thousands of unrelated file clips and splicing them in at opportune moments in a film’s story. Corwin’s genius for this style of editing was most exemplified by his work on Oliver Stone’s 1994 manic masterpiece Natural Born Killers. This movie’s constantly interrupted flow reminded me of that film but the use of file footage didn’t feel as necessary to the message of The Big Short. I applaud Corwin’s work but I’m not entirely sure his talents were needed for this particular story.
Where The Big Short succeeds is in reminding audiences that the financial sector carries enormous power and the people in charge of it often act with impunity, regardless of the criminality with which they may operate. This movie tells us that the big banks played with the American economy like it were a deck of cards, with no regard for the people whose lives were going to be affected. And while the film’s central characters see that the bubble is about to burst, they don’t do much to warn the public and instead, use their knowledge and vast wealth to make themselves even richer.
There are no heroes in The Big Short and perhaps that’s what confused and irked me about the levity with which many of its scenes are played. The Big Short was nominated for best motion picture at the 2016 Golden Globes in the comedy or musical category. I marked the film as a comedy for our categorization on this website.The casual attitude of the picture was glaring in a scene where actress Margot Robbie (as herself) sat in a bubble bath, drinking champagne and explaining directly to
The casual attitude of the picture was glaring in a scene where actress Margot Robbie (as herself) sat in a bubble bath, drinking champagne and explaining directly to camera the theory behind mortgage bonds. I just found the scene jarring; it felt much more natural when Gosling (in character) explained collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) by using Jenga blocks during a meeting with his clients. Robbie’s scene also felt like too much of a reminder of The Wolf of Wall Street, which she co-starred in. I wasn’t sure if McKay wanted to give a nod to that film, rip it off or just happened to pick Robbie without thinking of the connection.
But this film is far from a hilarious romp through the world of high finance. I laughed often during The Big Short, but there are moments of quiet — when the ever-present soundtrack of music, ringing phones and background chatter end — that strike a very heavy chord. One such scene comes when Brad Pitt’s character reminds his overzealous protegees that the money they may make is coming as a result of millions of people not being able to pay their mortgages.
I’m not sure how many of the people sitting in the theater with me were affected by the housing crisis, but when that scene played out, the whole house was silent.