Quite frankly, I was skeptical when I heard that Adam McKay, best known for broad comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, was taking writing and directing duties on a movie dealing with the financial collapse of 2008. I should not have worried. McKay has come up with a whip-smart, dark and sobering comedy based on Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine that not only does its source material proud, it pulls off a miracle in making dense Wall Street-speak understandable for mainstream audiences.
McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph have found clever ways to make this material work, and they are aided by one of the year’s best ensemble casts. As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), it’s no wonder the film already has been nominated for several Golden Globe and SAG awards this week. It richly deserves the accolades. Christian Bale, a Globe and SAG nominee, plays Michael Burry, a San Jose-based money manager who made a shocking discovery in 2005 that the Wall Street banks had basically put a ticking time bomb into the housing market and that it eventually would cause the boom to go bust in a few years. So he invents something called a credit default swap that will have the effect of shorting the market. In other words, a get-rich scheme that bets against the health of the American economy, bets on a collapse and wins by going negative. Wall Street banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) gets wind of it and convinces grumpy hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to invest millions, which he does despite some moral reservations that play a significant part as all of this unravels during the film. Others try to jump in and are even helped along the way by a former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who, though now in the business of predicting disastrous consequences for the environment, still can use his brilliance to help others who get caught up in this world.
What makes this movie work better than it has any right to is crackling dialogue delivered by this crackerjack cast; all are playing at the top of their game. Bale, working most of his scenes alone, is sharply funny and real. Gosling, despite the worst hairstyle of his career, is a riot. Carell again shows he has turned into a first-rate character actor by totally losing himself in this role. Pitt, whose company Plan B is also a key producer of the film, takes on a smallish supporting turn with style. The supporting cast is aces, with nice work from Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong and Rafe Spall, who work as analysts in Carell’s firm. Finn Wittrock and John Magaro play a couple of young hotshots in over their heads but looking for the magic elixir with a little help from Pitt.
To solve some of the problem of trying to explain what seems like impossibly difficult-to-understand financial dealings, McKay cleverly brings in celebrity segments that talk about it all in layman’s terms, including especially amusing scenes with Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and CNN’s Anthony Bourdain, who tries to compare leftover fish to bad financial deals.
The movie originally was planned for release next year, but when Paramount saw it, the film was moved up to compete this awards season. My guess is we will be hearing a lot from The Big Short, which is the rare bird that can blend really, really smart comedy with some serious subject matter that quite frankly could serve as a warning that we aren’t out of the woods yet. This story based on true events could be just a precursor to something worse if we don’t learn the lesson. A movie like The Big Short serves as a strong reminder. Louise Rosner-Meyer and Jeremy Kleiner are the producers.
Do you plan to see The Big Short? Let us know what you think.