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.