The Big Short is the most frustrating film of the year – in the best possible way. Adapted from the Michael Lewis’s bestselling 2010 novel of the same name, Adam McKay’s latest film centers on the rogue investors who “smelled where the bull went number two” and bet against, or “shorted,” the housing market before the 2007-2008 financial crisis.
The film begins with Dr. Michael Burry, a one-eyed former neurologist with high-functioning autism played by Christian Bale, who discovers that the collateralized debt obligations underpinning much of the American economy are backed by subprime mortgages and decides to short the market. News of an “idiot” buying credit default swaps reaches Deutsche Bank trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who begins to do the same. Vennett’s assistant accidentally calls the office of Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a short-tempered fund manager, and the two trading groups begin an uneasy partnership. Two upstart investors also accidentally discover the scheme, but need trader-turned-doomsday prepper Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get them an International Swaps and Derivatives Association Master Agreement before they can start trading. The bulk of the film then follows each of these groups as they attempt to wait out the clock until the mortgages’ adjustable rates kick in and the defaults come pouring in.
If all of this jargon sounds confusing, that’s because it is. However, do not let a lack of familiarity with finance deter you from seeing the film. The film meets the challenge of accessibility head-on and explains all of these topics so ingeniously that it is better I leave the specifics unsaid. In fact, those least familiar with the financial crisis are those whom I would most urge to go see it. The film is aimed at people with little to no financial knowledge, and it’s a great primer to a very important topic. Modern financial instruments are inherently complex, and one of the central themes of McKay’s film is the potential for both intentional and inadvertent harm that is enabled by this very abstruseness.
Beyond its informational value, The Big Short is simply an unruly, uncontrollable and undeniably funny movie. It is a two-hour-long public service announcement to the American citizenry, but one that doesn’t take itself too seriously – it’s PBS meets The Wolf of Wall Street. While the source material, written by the brilliant Lewis, offers a lot to work with, McKay – writer and director of Talladega Nights, Anchorman and The Other Guys – shows that he can shine without Will Ferrell as a lead and that his talents extend beyond straight comedy. Similarly, Carrell takes another step out of the colossal shadow of Michael Scott to deliver, in my opinion, the best dramatic performance in a film that also includes Christian Bale – no small feat.
The most conspicuous presence in the film, though, is editor Hank Corwin, whose jarring film editing – heavily inspired by Martin Scorsese and his longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker – brilliantly adds to the movie’s chaos. Scenes of foreclosed houses are intercut with clips from the video for Ludacris’s “Shake Your Money Maker” and McDonald’s commercials. A diagram of the male reproductive system conveniently appears on-screen when a character mentions he has a swollen epididymis. This is all to say, the traditional standard of the “invisible edit” is set on fire and thrown out the window.
Admittedly, this “in-your-face-ness” may be off-putting to some viewers looking for a more reverent discussion of what is no doubt a significant and dark topic in American history. However, as Dr. Strangelove did with mutually assured destruction, The Big Short chooses to make its points not with polite and sober-minded tsk-tsks but by exposing the underlying incompetence of the system in bawdy and glorious fashion.
Despite its humor, The Big Short is still fundamentally rooted in compassion for the suffering of those affected by the wrongdoings of the financial industry, and this is where the movie truly excels. It never loses sight of the larger issue at hand, and it repeatedly stresses how any of its characters’ victories are pyrrhic at best. As Pitt’s character informs two of the investors at one point; “You just bet against the American economy. If we’re right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings. People lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number: every one percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. Did you know that?”
The Big Short makes viewers root for the characters to succeed, and at the same time, informs them of the horrible things that will happen if they do – and this is why the film is so brilliantly frustrating. The Big Short is the rare kind of film that leaves you unsure whether to laugh or tear your hair out, that is at once both deeply entertaining and deeply upsetting. The film will be playing for free at Images next Wednesday, Feb. 18 and I urge everyone to go see it.