REVIEW: “The Big Short”

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You have to admit it takes a special talent to take collateralized debt obligations, subprime loans, and mortgage-backed securities and make something truly entertaining out of it. Yet that is exactly what Will Ferrell wingman turned partisan filmmaker Adam McKay has done with “The Big Short”, a strangely fun, fascinating and occasionally troublesome financial dramedy.

The movie is based on a book by Michael Lewis which chronicled the events leading up to the 2008 banking crisis. McKay sticks close to the book putting his sites on the easiest of targets – wealthy white-collar brokers and bankers.  To no surprise there were plenty of people ready to buy into the film without hesitation. Of course in reality it wasn’t as black-and-white and there were far more people for McKay to blame who conveniently get a pass.

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But enough of that. The entertainment is found in the snappy, whip-smart script by McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Interestingly the writing is also the source of some unfortunate frustration. “The Big Short” is jam-packed with Wall Street jargon and financial lingo that left my head spinning. The dialogue is dense and there is narration aplenty. The writing ends up being a double-edged sword – utterly captivating yet sometimes numbing for those who aren’t in the know.

The film follows three groups, each vaguely connected by the impending crisis. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an introverted hedge fund manager and the first person to notice the housing market is about to blow. The barefooted, cargo short-wearing Burry takes a big chunk of investor’s capital and bets billions of dollars on the market failing. Bale is the right guy for such an eccentric character but he disappears from the screen far too often.

Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, an angry and cynical money manager who doesn’t trust the banks or the current system. He and his team are convinced by Ryan Gosling’s Deutsche Bank wheeler-dealer Jared Vennett to go in together and bet against the banks. For Vennett it’s a chance to make some easy money. For Baum it’s an opportunity to stick it to the financial world and twist the knife by taking their money. Carell probably gets the most screen time and fills it with a fairly one-note performance. He’s perpetually angry and always shouting. Think Michael Scott with less humor and a really sour attitude.

The third group features two young whiz kid investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who turned $110,000 to $30 million out of their Boulder, Colorado garage. They move to New York and get a whiff of the looming crash. Seeing dollar signs they convince a disillusioned securities trader named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to use his connections to get them in the game before the bottom falls out of the market.

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McKay bounces back-and-forth between these packs of financial wolves as they each try to position themselves for the biggest payoff. Again, the narration is aplenty often breaking the fourth wall. And in a weird attempt at mixing cleverness with humor, we get brief lessons on Wall Street terminology from celebrities playing themselves. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath talking about mortgage funds, Selina Gomez at a blackjack table explaining Synthetic CDOs, etc. It’s amusing but a bit distracting.

As “The Big Short” winds its way to its inevitable ending I felt exhausted. Trying to keep up with all of the fast market talk and financial blather wore me down. And there’s so much emphasis on it that the movie comes off as overstuffed and missing the human element which would have given it a more powerful punch. And McKay’s selective storytelling and convenient omissions keep the film from having the sting of authenticity it should. Still I admit to being mesmerized by the all business back-and-forths and how well the cast sells it even if I didn’t always understand what the heck they were saying.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

16 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Big Short”

  1. I had read the book and nearly didn’t go to the movie because I figured it would just butcher the details, but surprisingly it pretty much got everything right, and I found it more entertaining than you did. Well done on a difficult subject to turn into a movie.

    • I was really surprised at how well it holds our attention. And the dialogue is really snappy. Of course it doesn’t tell the whole story (as you would expect when coming at it from a political angle), but it was quite fun.

  2. I actually really enjoyed this movie – especially the performances of everyone. However, I totally see your point about it being packed full. I was only able to keep up because I had watched the famous documentary (Inside Job) about the crash before I saw this movie. The documentary gave me a bit of a working knowledge about the lingo and the workings of the situation, which was a nice springboard into this movie. Don’t think I would have kept up well without that.

  3. I saw this film a few years ago and it blew me away. I definitely know a bit more about finances but wow, what it revealed and how it just blew up the financial world shocked me. I enjoyed the casting and performances but also how a group of men come to the realization of a world that was meant to be so big would come crashing down and it could’ve been avoided.

    • The use of language in the film was amazing. The actors were so convincing. It does paint the crash in broad strokes but as entertainment it was a real surprise.

  4. This was one of my top films of 2015. Only thing I think brought it down from an amazing grade for me was the direction by McKay. Still don’t know why he got a Best Director nom.

    I still think about this movie consistently though. The end hit me hard.

    • The Academy seems to love McKay now. I’m assuming it’s because he makes very political movies now and they kinda like that? I mean they even nominated him for the unbearable “Vice”. While not as high on this one as you, it is head and shoulders above “Vice”.

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