Adam “Anchorman” McKay goes semi-straight with his comedy-drama about the 2007/08 financial crisis.
The Big Short is a pretty hard sell. In fact, if it wasn’t helmed by beloved comedy director Adam McKay and didn’t feature such a star studded ensemble, it probably wouldn’t sell at all. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis, the film is about the 2007/08 financial crisis and, more specifically, the guys that bet against the banks. The financial crisis ruined the lives of literally millions of people, so why would anyone want to see a film about guys who essentially got rich off of the greed and stupidity of the bankers who created the mess? Like I said, it’s a hard sell…
However, the film is worth seeing for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, it is a complete and utter takedown of Wall Street and everyone involved in the sorry mess – McKay is, perhaps surprisingly, quite political and insists that most of his work is told from a leftist slant, with anti-corporate ideas running throughout. In a recent interview with Vulture he said:
“Anchorman was clearly, like, what the fuck happened to the television media, what a joke it’s become. Talladega Nights was about this weird stubborn pride that was showing up in America, kind of the corporate takeover of Southern pride. Stepbrothers was about how consumerism turns grown-ups into little kids.”
Sure, some of it may be a stretch, but the ideas are no doubt there. The financial crisis in all its intricacies is something that is so ridiculous and awful that maybe all we can do is laugh, and that’s the route McKay has gone down with The Big Short – a comic satire that tries to explain what the hell actually happened.
The aforementioned star-studded cast includes Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt as men who all in some capacity see what others don’t – that the US housing market is built on a bubble which, as bubbles tend to do, is going to burst. It’s a credit to McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph that they have written a script where the men who got rich off the disaster come off as the good guys. Everyone involved gives a good performance, but there isn’t much by the way of character development. Carrell perhaps comes closest, playing Mark Baum – a man traumatised by the death of his brother who believes everything is a conspiracy – but even he finishes up much the way he started. John Margaro and Finn Wittrock also hold their own as two young investors who cash in on the crisis, realising in the process just how broken the system really is.
The film is heavy-handed with its themes (seriously, you won’t meet a banker in The Big Short who isn’t a total prick) and will leave you suitably outraged by the time the credits roll, but it suffers from constant tonal shifting. McKay’s comedic roots are clear, but it feels like he should have either committed to all out satire or something more rooted in drama – either could have worked, but the switching between the two can be jarring. McKay and Randolph have however tried to make the dry as a bone financial jargon that is necessary to the plot as accessible as possible, with Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett providing informative voiceover alongside various celebrity cameos (including the likes of Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie) to explain the concepts. Whether or not you think these work will come entirely down to personal preference – some will find them laugh out loud hilarious, whilst others will see them as a cheap gimmick that takes you out of the film (I fall somewhere inbetween).
The Big Short’s real strength lies in the editing – Hank Corwin’s quickfire approach allows the film to build up rapid momentum and he would be fully deserving of taking home the Best Editing Oscar next month. Visually the film is far more interesting than the subject matter should allow it to be, and Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography and McKay’s direction should be celebrated – who’d have thought that one of the pioneers of dick jokes would be a real contender for the Best Director Oscar?
Perhaps not as scathing as it could have been, The Big Short is still an interesting take on the madness that was the biggest financial crisis since 1929 and is well worth a watch.