Director: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Runtime: 130 Minutes
There have been attempts in the past by Hollywood to try and weave a coherent stream of narrative around the fateful events of the 21st century’s worst financial crisis. Beyond the many documentaries that have been trotted out in succession to try and make sense of the issue for contemporary ears, the closest to really touch on the subject in a realistic manner was J. C. Chandor’s fictitious, inspired drama Margin Call that detailed the immediate fallout of the crash; but even for all the smarts that movie held and the engagement that it offered, there was little there for the populist spectrum to grab a hold of.
Now comes The Big Short, director Adam McKay’s first foray into drama that focuses all of its attention on the lead up to the economic cataclysm – and it’s probably the first film of its kind to tackle the subject in the manner necessary to become a hit.
Taking the non-fiction source material of the Michael Lewis novel of the same name as more of a loose structure upon which to do its own thing, The Big Short reveals itself to be a film so self-aware of the narrative pitfalls associated with its real-world bounds that it openly gestures to the audience that they shouldn’t expect answers to questions the film simply cannot resolve. Rather, we should just accept that no amount of entertaining banter amongst its characters will enlighten you to the real damage caused by the crisis, but through practical metaphors and delicate character arcs, we can at least keep a conversation going about it.
Much like Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, the film backflips and dances around the challenge of making such dense reading palatable to general moviegoers by openhandedly manipulating the dramatic fabric of proceedings. At points, characters break the fourth wall, turn and address the audience to explain either the how’s and why’s of something happening in layman’s terms, or are quick to point out the realities thought fictitious and the fictions thought real. It’s far more than just a means of keeping a narrative flow; it’s a way of keeping the complexities of its details as digestible as possible, and many of McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s methods of address are hilariously inspired pieces of commentary that work perfectly in the visual medium of film.
The problems that derive from these stylistic decisions though are that the film never manages to nail down a specific manner of presentation. The eclectic slideshow format and montage editing structure keeps the whole thing moving at a brisk pace that rarely stands still, but this, married with some of the quirkier design choices (such as Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining the specifications of mortgage bonds) keeps things incredibly entertaining and effectively told, but are in places a heavy contrast with the films hyper-real cinematography in the otherwise majority of its scenes. It’s as if McKay is struggling to keep the more skittish tendencies of his earlier productions under control.
On the plus side, the film is never boring even as it tiptoes over into its second hour, mainly due to some terrific performances from its insanely well-populated cast. Christian Bale somehow expands the merits of self-serving neurologist-turned-hedge fund manager Dr Michael Burry, Steve Carell continues to demonstrate his recent penchant for the chameleonic as he disappears into his eroding Wall Street manager Mark Baum, and Ryan Gosling continues to prove his chops for seriously on point comedy as a self-interested but gifted bond salesman. Brad Pitt underplays his role as the doomsday fearing mentor of relative newcomers John Magaro and Finn Wittrock.
Each offer alternate, interwoven perspectives of the same scathing approach to the system as they try to make it big in the shadow of the incoming breakdown. These are not the heroes or champions of the everyman by a long shot, still a part of the very system that allowed the financial meltdown to happen in the first place, but as stated by numerous characters throughout - its better to see them kick the enemy while it’s down than to see nothing succeed at all.
If there is a message to be taken from the whole thing, then it’s one hidden in the eyes of its characters by the film's end; all aware that what is about to happen will tear down the world that they know in ways unimagined as the cumulative weight of their progress begins to bare down on their consciousnesses. Well, some of them. It’s a welcome emotional denouement that doesn’t oversaturate the film's conclusion, but does at least provide an emotional inflexion of the central crisis at hand, and the impact that will follow.
In all, The Big Short is practically a gala of talent, confidently idiosyncratic and admirably self-aware and, if one can look past its sometimes erratic and scattershot construction, offers the ingredients for one of the most enjoyable and informative films of its kind to surface in recent memory.