I’m no economist, and, well…math is hard. I get that lax lending practices led to the housing market collapse in 2008, but I sure as hell don’t have a firm grasp on what else contributed to the financial meltdown. With The Big Short, writer and director Adam McKay takes on the courageous and potentially suicidal task of explaining it all, Schoolhouse Rock style—only hopped up on Adderall.
Based on the nonfiction exposé The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, The Big Short follows the intertwined stories of Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially inept Metallica-blaring doctor-turned-hedge fund-manager with Asperger’s, a glass eye, and a cyst on his face that bummed me out every time I saw him; douchebag Wall Street trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who doubles as narrator; cynical, boorish, and fictitious Chicken Little hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team; newbie investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock); and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who’s got no love for the business. In one way or another, they all aim to profit from mass calamity—and they succeed. The standouts here easily are Gosling and Carell, who have a natural chemistry and seem to have fun with their parts. Pitt, who plays psychos and goofballs better than anyone (e.g., True Romance, 12 Monkeys, Fight Club, Snatch—need I say more?), has a secondary role, but he’s awesome; I didn’t recognize him right away. Bale, on the other hand, is a bit much—to the point of being a downer.
The story involves dry, technical, and boring financial concepts, usually abbreviations: credit default swaps (CDS), collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), NINJA loans—not the stuff that typically generates emotion or drama. McKay uses a number of offbeat but smart gimmicks to explain the basics: celebrity cameos (Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain, to name two), demonstrations (a la Jenga), breaking character, songs and graphics. His approach does the trick, and it’s entertaining. Very much so. However, it’s not perfect: the pacing, though not as frenetic as Wolves of Wall Street, still wore me out by the end. Some questions remain in my mind—like how you can bet against something like the economy. It’s also still unclear how it all happened. To quote the movie, though, “[t]he truth is like poetry, and most people fucking hate poetry;” I think that’s the essence. One thing is certain: McKay is outraged; by showing us that the nonsense continues, he wants us to be, too.
(AMC River East) B-