A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2016


2015, R, 168 mins.


Christian Bale as Michael Burry  /  Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert  /  Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett  /  Steve Carell as Mark Baum  /  Melissa Leo as Georgia Hale  /  Karen Gillan as Evie  /  Marisa Tomei as Cynthia Baum  /  Tracy Letts as Lawrence Fields  /  Finn Wittrock as Jamie Shipley  /  John Magaro as Charlie Geller  /  Rafe Spall as Danny Moses  /  Hamish Linklater as Porter Collins  /  Byron Mann as Mr. Chau  /  Al Sapienza as Dan Detone  /  Jeremy Strong as Vinny Daniel

Directed by Adam McKay  /  Written by McKay and Charles Randolph  /  Based on the book by Michael Lewis

THE BIG SHORT is a new comedy satire that displays a remarkable level of creativity and nerve in trying to make sense out of the completely senseless Financial Crisis of 2008.  

Based on the 2010 Michael Lewis book of the same name (which chronicled the then housing market and credit bubble), the film deals with the ultra convoluted web of key players and events that led to the credit default swap market that, in turn, imploded the economy.  Directed with commendable energy by Adam McKay (more known for Will Ferrell comedies like ANCHORMAN and TALLADEGA NIGHTS), THE BIG SHORT frequently gets bogged down in such inordinately complicated financial mumbo-jumbo and industry jargon that it frequently becomes a confusing chore to sit through.  Yet, McKay’s directorial confidence and a remarkably engaging ensemble cast keeps everything jubilantly afloat. 

The unbridled ambition of THE BIG SHORT is pretty staggering when one even thinks modestly at what it’s covering.  McKay’s overall approach is kind of thanklessly inventive, especially considering that he’s approaching a very serious subject matter that completely ruined the lives of countless American citizens.  There’s a remarkable attention to detail here in his attempts to deliver a well-informed examination of just what in the hell happened throughout 2007 and 2008.  At times, when matters get beyond complicated, McKay even resorts to segueing the film towards little vignettes where real life celebrities – playing versions of themselves – offer a more simplistic explanation of dense and intricate financial matters.  For the most part, deviously sly moments like this in THE BIG SHORT work, even when one is still left – after watching them – in a befuddled state. 



The winning cast here, though, is its main selling feature.  The film begins in the mid-2000’s, during which time Michael Burry (Christian Bale) decides to take it upon himself to look at the subprime mortgage market in the US…and when he does he discovers a persuasive and undeniable countrywide pattern of fraud.  Thinking that American financial ruin is preordained, Burry takes a gamble and begins pouring every penny he has into an investment that would only pay off if the whole system collapsed.  Also sensing doom is Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a nitpicky money manager that initially has great difficulty believing that the banking system and government would turn blind eyes to the criminal activities of banks.  He seeks out another young and opportunistic banker, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and the two together decide to embark on their own very risky investment plan that would payoff at the expense of Americans losing millions.  Concurrent to this is another subplot involving two up and coming businessmen (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) that turn to retired business strategist Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help sift their way through the whole thorny financial crisis at hand…and all while hoping to cash in big as a result. 

THE BIG SHORT is sometimes a very difficult film to navigate through, especially for lay viewers that are not up to speed or educated on financial matters and economic trends.  McKay at least deserves props for attempting to get behind and capture the insane levels of corruption that went on to define the 2008 Financial Crisis, and by framing the film as both a crime caper and a scathing comedic satire I think he’s approached the material in just the right manner.  Even though THE BIG SHORT is a frequent laugh riot throughout, McKay still reinforces the central tragedy at the heart of the film: Millions of Americans took out irresponsible loans (often without any approval process or collateral criteria) to achieve the American Dream, all while the financial institutions that offered them attempted to make billions off of them while secretly stealing from their pockets.  And when the you-know-what hit the fan…the government swooped in, bailed out the banking crooks at the expense of the little guy, leaving a damning sensation that the whole sordid process will repeat itself all over again.  It’s all kind of sickening.   

Even in the midst of re-enacting the nightmarish scenarios that gave way to economic implosion, THE BIG SHORT retains a consistent comedic edge throughout.  The aforementioned celebrity cameos, for instance, score some much needed laughs amidst all of the pathos in the film, one of which involves Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining seemingly incomprehensible financial concepts (granted, I have my doubts that most audience members were even paying attention to what she was saying).  When matters get increasingly perplexing – like when explaining collateralized debt obligations, for one thing – the film then cuts to Selena Gomez at a blackjack table to help shed light on it using common vernacular and gambling analogies.  There are times when McKay’s stylistic hubris in the film can be distracting and too-on-the-nose (characters also frequently break the fourth wall), but there’s no denying the way that THE BIG SHORT actively keeps our attention for two hours.  Any other stylistic choice might have made the film borderline unwatchable. 

McKay’s ensemble cast is allowed free reign here, many of whom churn out superlative performances (even when many of their hair pieces come off as obtrusively phony).  Carell is quite superb as an increasingly agitated man that simply can’t believe the dishonesty that surrounds him.  Gosling has a field day playing the uber smarmy Vennett, who seems to take great macho glee in making money off of millions of poor suckers.  Christian Bale gives arguably the film’s most soulful performance as Burry, a former medical doctor turned money manager that gets into hot water with his superiors over his unconventional working style and chronically anti-social behavior.  It’s the type of weirdly idiosyncratic character that a master method actor like Bale can really sink his teeth into and flesh out.  In a film filled with flamboyant personalities all vying to take center stage, Bale’s work here helps ground the film in a palpable state of dramatic paranoia and ethical confusion.  

My main misgivings with THE BIG SHORT, though, is that it’s really hard to root for any one person in it, especially seeing as many of the “good” people presented, per se, are all looking to score off a crooked system that they condemn.  It’s also hard to overlook the fact that – despite its eclectically colorful approach – the film frequently feels like a dry college lecture that’s high on historical and economic bullet points and low on providing deeper, more compelling and thoughtful commentary on the major events and players that partook in such anger-inducing events.  Granted, explaining such particulars in the film is an unenviable and Herculean task, and McKay has mostly succeeds here.  THE BIG SHORT is quite adept at exposing the head-spinning amount of wrongdoing that created the maddening event that was the Financial Crisis, but in terms of being a truly volatile satire that goes for the jugular and dares to inspire real change in how our financial world operates…it has no answers.  

Then again, what film would?

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