For all of its juvenile tendencies, The Big Short stays grounded in harsh and distressing reality during its entire 2-hour plus running time. There hasn’t really been a movie like this about the 2008 economic crisis, and what Adam McKay has done here is make more than an accessible behind-the-scenes financial drama. The character stakes are incredibly high, as the audience knows the outcome, but McKay’s smart filmmaking allows the film to subvert expectations in every unorthodox way.
From the director of Anchorman of all places, The Big Short is based on the 2010 novel by Michael Lewis (of “The Blind Side” and “Moneyball” fame). It’s a money drama to be sure, yet the most important thing about The Big Short is that it remains accessible. For all of its talk of subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations, the film doesn’t hit you over the head with jargon, and explains the important bits when absolutely necessary (with help from a few special guest stars and some fourth-wall breaking).
The four main characters that The Big Short focuses on are described as outsiders, as they see the crisis coming when nobody else believes them. This lends tension and drives the plot, as awkward hedge funder Michael Burry (Christian Bale) digs into the nitty gritty of the housing market and bets against the market. Burry is the film’s real outsider, and I’ve never seen Bale give a performance so eccentric yet plausible. He dresses for work like a dad at a fish fry, drumming along on his drumpads while the economy collapses around him. On the other end is Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hot-headed Wall Street trader who catches wind of Burry’s plan via Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). Baum’s character comes away with his faith broken in the system, just like we do, as I left the film with a mix of outrage but also intrigue.
The Big Short never delves into Wolf of Wall Street territory, and that’s a good thing for a film taking on such a serious subject matter. There’s no hookers or blow, no guns, but this film is all about the money. There’s a fine line that the film straddles on how to treat the bankers involved, and the film succeeds at leaving you with the answers you need directed at the people responsible. But this isn’t a call-to-action film either, it’s rather a warning call, neither a wholly satirical one nor a dull biographical picture – it’s Hollywood entertainment after all, with top-notch performances and direction layered with razor-sharp edges. The Big Short is an important film, and it educates without pandering, while entertaining to its full extent.