Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Director: Adam McKay
Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Remember that Will Ferrell/ Mark Walberg buddy cop comedyThe Other Guys? You know, the one where Ferrell's nebbish pencil-pusher is actually revealed to have a gorgeous wife and a secret double-life as a street pimp, concluding with a credits sequence showcasing a wealth of charts and graphs detailing the inequality of CEO billions and government-approved bank bailouts? Well, take the general tone of that final credits crawl and you basically have writer-director Adam McKay's The Big Short; an angry rant of a movie which lectures us about corruption in the financial sector while simultaneously mocking the audience by simplifying things down into easily digestible sound bites.
The problems with the film, beyond the fact that it's an aesthetically and stylistically ugly piece of work, stems from the fatal decision of encouraging empathy for a bunch of greedy, duplicitous finance workers. Though based on Michael Lewis's bestselling 2010 book of the same name, The Big Short banks on an entirely different principle in terms of presenting itself as a cinematic object lesson. The truth here is that the handful of fact-based characters running around frantically throughout this ungainly mess are ultimately presented as moral compasses to some degree; a tact that could have been compelling if any of the individuals here were even remotely interesting.
There's Wall Street banker and fourth wall-breaking narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Northern California-based MD and money manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), former trader for Chase turned eco-hippie Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), and even some young up-and-comers to the financial game Jaime Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro). Other faces pop in and out too, but they are essentially all mouth-pieces for McKay's enraged agit prop, which hurtles along like a drunken first-year economics student raised on youtube culture. More troubling than the film's style--lots of shaky handheld camerawork, wobbly zoom lenses, faux-documentary interludes, and rapid-fire editing--is the point of view, which consists mainly of expository speeches and financial jargon spewed at a rapid clip while characters wink at the audience. In essence, there's no narrative or story here. There really are no characters either, since every actor here is encouraged to indulge in pantomiming human behavior.
Of course, McKay and fellow screenwriter Charles Randolph would argue that the purpose of their movie is to bludgeon us out of complacency by using caricature in order to get at deeper truths, but genuine farce requires a certain directorial finesse, and McKay is way out of his depth here. Anyone with even a passing interest in the real nuts and bolts of how Wall Street operates will find The Big Short unbearably condescending, while those going in for a Talladega Nights-style yuck-fest will be sorely confused at the lack of legitimate laughs. When Gosling's smug banker proclaims himself and few others as "outsiders and weirdos who saw what no one else could…the giant lie at the heart of the economy", we are asked to both invest in these vile losers who will inevitably profit in the realm of billions as well as shake ourselves for not paying more attention at the time. The fact that people lost their homes and jobs during the collapse is not something McKay and company care to examine, which would have been fine if we didn't also have to witness scenes of Carrell's conflicted fund manager crying over the phone and having heart-to-heart talks with his wife (a wasted Marissa Tomei). Once all the financiers gather together at the American Securitization Forum in Las Vegas (except for Bale's glass-eyed, metal-loving bum, who stays behind at his San Jose office furiously jotting numbers on a whiteboard), The Big Short has reached such a level of repetitive numbness that not even the sight of Margo Robbie in a hot tub explaining the intricacies of subprime mortgages can save this thing.
If this last point is any indication of McKay's general distrust of audience intelligence, then we also get cameos from the likes of Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain pontificating on synthetic collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps. Ultimately, all the finger wagging has the opposite effect the creators clearly intended; meaning that, once the dust settles after the 2008 financial collapse, the feeling we get from witnessing The Big Short isn't outrage, but rather embarrassment.