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.
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.
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