Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” tackles a weighty subject through a peculiar blend of comedy and drama—a blend that’s mostly successful. Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis the film follows several people in the world of high finance who essentially predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse--that caused the 2008 financial crisis—and profited from it.
Now that doesn’t sound like a laughing matter, does it? Which is why McKay’s (who wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph) semi comedic approach seems odd at first. However McKay doesn’t trivialize the situation nor does he glorify the people involved. Instead the humor is used to emphasize the sheer ridiculousness and chaos of the situation, the utter stupidity and greed of those involved in this massive financial collapse (in a lot of ways the picture’s black comedic vibes are similar to Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”). When we laugh, it’s usually out of discomfort or disbelief.
The picture also takes many opportunities to poke fun at its main characters--an eclectic band of smart socially awkward weirdo’s, to say the least. Leading the bunch is hedge fund manager Michael Burry, (Christian Bale using his chameleon like acting abilities to disappear into his role once again) the first one to catch on to this unfortunate trend in housing. As the movie goes on Bale’s presence decreases. He spends the majority of his scenes barricaded in his office like a hermit, listening to heavy metal music on full blast or banging on his own set of drums. Then there’s eccentric money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) who appears to have come equipped with a permanent BS detector—not afraid to speak his mind or call other people’s stupidity out during meetings. Also along for the ride is Jared Vennett, (Ryan Gosling, arrogant and with a tan) Vinnie Daniel, (Jeremy Strong) who works with Baum, Charlie Geller, (John Magaro) Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, in an effective low key role) among others. While it could be argued that Baum emerges as the main character, “The Big Short” is very much an ensemble film. Each actor carries their respective weight, forming a cohesive unit, and when they cross paths they have an effortless tragi-comedic chemistry.
In terms of style, the picture switches back and forth between realistic hand held cinema Verite style scenes and hectic absurdist asides; sudden flashbacks and flash-forwards, characters breaking the fourth wall, slick montages and cutaways (“Wolf Of Wall Street” actress Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining what sub prime mortgages are, for example) that contribute to the film’s comedic demeanor. These stylistic and structural flourishes keep the film zipping along at a steady pace and show awareness (on the filmmakers part) of the complexity of the material in relation to a general audience member. “The Big Short” presents a lot of information to the viewer, dry technical terms and concepts pertaining to finance and the housing market (terms that aren’t going to make sense to a novice like myself) in engaging and often humorous ways. At times, the movie plays like an entertaining housing market tutorial video.
Yet at its core “The Big Short” is very serious, terrifying even and Mckay knows that. During the last third everything slows down and there are no comedic asides. The film sheds its black comedic tone and simply turns black. The air has been sucked out the room. Our weirdo’s, who up until this point have practically been celebrating their success and insider knowledge, suddenly aren’t so excited anymore; they can’t quite comprehend what’s happened. “The Big Short” is about a group of people who bet against the U.S economy…and win. Could you imagine being in that situation? Could you imagine being one of the few who knew the economy would fall as hard as it did? As much as one may laugh during “The Big Short” you ultimately walk out feeling icky. McKay’s picture may not always work—it loses focus at times and there are a few comedic montages that could be cut out—but it’s an absorbing film nonetheless.