Everything in The Big Short is a little off. Scenes end a beat or two before one of the characters finishes his sentence. Brief snippets of unrelated events creep into the spaces between sequences. The movie’s central foursome – Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt — don’t look their glamorous best. Celebrity cameos and profane outbursts punctuate what seems at first like a standard ripped-from-the-headlines drama. Funny bits and striking melancholy appear hand-in-hand, not clashing, but not quite fusing either.
The “directed by” credit accounts for some of the movie’s unusual energy. Adam McKay, who also co-scripted this adaptation Michael Lewis’ novel of the same name with Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs), is best known for his big-budget, big-hit studio comedies. Most of them star Will Ferrell and a cadre of assorted funny people improvising until their ears turn blue. McKay is not the first person you’d think of to direct a politically charged account of the year leading up to the 2008 financial meltdown. But his outsider’s approach actually fits the story, which is about the sloppy-looking but sharp-thinking Wall Street outsiders who saw the crash coming. That they did nothing to stop it is the specter that hangs over even the movie’s funniest bits like a dense fog. McKay mines this rinky-dink bunch for the comedy of their absurd behavior. If you pay close enough attention, though, you see him seeding the ground for a slow-burning gut punch. These are the men who could have saved millions of livelihoods – and didn’t.
Here’s the point at which I confess that despite this movie’s occasionally heavy-handed efforts to distill the complex Wall Street vocabulary into easily understood concepts, I struggled at times to follow the particulars. The point seems to be that these terms were designed to be as confusing as possible, to trick an unsuspecting public into believing they’re above the books. But the inscrutability of the terminology occasionally kept me at a remove from the unfolding narrative. If you’re similarly naive about the nuts and bolts of shady economic practices, go in expecting to scratch your head a few times.
From the first second, it’s clear that The Big Short has more on its mind than simply dramatizing the facts. Gosling periodically narrates the movie as Jared Vennett, a slick-talking trader with a penchant for breaking the fourth wall and, thanks to Gosling’s limber comic chops, a wild profane streak. The script makes no overt case for Jared as the center of this story expect that his character links between several of the movie’s other key players. Jared is the first to catch wind of a scheme by the hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale) to take advantage of what he believes will be a catastrophic housing market crash, and he recruits the cantankerous hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Carell) to help him, thanks to an accidental phone call so seemingly contrived for dramatic effect that Gosling’s narration has to assure the audience that it happened in real life.
The movie’s other major plot thread rarely intersects but provides some of the movie’s most overt stabs at comedy. The young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Whitrock) discover one of Vennett’s flyers while they’re waiting for an ill-advised interview at a major trading company. (This instance of serendipity, Gosling tells us, was contrived by the screenwriters for narrative efficiency.) They find their way in to the trading business with the help of a chance connection with the retired banker Ben Rickert (Pitt). This bumbling duo’s clash with the no-nonsense, clean-living guru never dovetails with the main story as directly as it seems like it might, but it provides another angle into the corruption afoot.
The Big Short exists to remind its captive audience — drawn in by major movie stars, celebrity cameos, witty banter and frequent profanity — that one of the greatest injustices in the history of American economics took place in the nation’s most populated city less than a decade ago. There’s a sense that the filmmakers believe these events have already been forgotten, if people ever knew about them in the first place. That anger is on display in the whiplash-inducing cuts, which chop many sequences into fractured, frantic accounts of sleazy men with suspect motivations. It’s evident in the performances, which lend the movie only the barest hint of pathos amid the increasingly persuasive sense that these characters, and people in these situations with these motivations, are not to be trusted. And it’s evident in the faces and settings on display: conference rooms high above the laypeople affected by the decisions that transpire within them; white man after white man, all acting on their self-interested impulses.
In its fervent quest to make the audience understand the un-understandable, The Big Short takes more risks than the average true-story drama. Not every risk pays off — a recurring gag in which a celebrity, playing himself or herself, interrupts the main story to explain confusing concepts via analogy feels more condescending and arbitrary than helpful. But many of them do. Breaking the fourth wall is risky and often ill-advised, but the technique is used sparingly enough that the few times when it does happen illuminate the action rather than disrupting it. The dashes of humor make the potent tragedy of this story even more striking. The performances are outstanding in some ways that are expected — Christian Bale really commits to his role! Steve Carell is likable even when he plays jerks! — and other ways that are not. The Big Short asks a lot of its audience, but it’s giving enough back in the process that you admire what it’s trying to do, even when it’s throwing seven things at the wall and only four of them stick. As the novel-length closing title card before the credits implies, this is not a feel-good story of rags-to-riches. It’s riches-to-riches, but the riches at the end are little more than rags.