On the face of things, Adam McKay is a strange choice for The Big Short, the writer and director of several Saturday Night Live sketches, Anchorman and a string of other Will Ferrell projects of varying quality.
The big question
Based on Michael Lewis’s celebrated novel of the same name, this is a film which, despite elements of both, is neither a comedy nor a drama, but more an educational film-essay that warns of the perils in blindly entrusting your future to the corrupt and largely unregulated lenders of America – and the benefits of exploiting the greed of these banking executives who refused to face the consequences of their actions until it was too late.
As such, it is an exposé on the banking practices that ultimately led to the 2008 financial crash. As the popular internet meme states: “We used to laugh at our comedians and listen to our politicians. Now we laugh at politicians and listen to comedians”.
So, is Adam McKay worthy of our ears?
The big names
To carry us through this education – in a world many of us are unfamiliar with – we follow a group of disparate characters who, besides being portrayed by a top draw cast, have one unifying quality: they are, to some extent, outsiders. They think differently.
You’ve got Dr Michael Burry (Bale) – the Scion Capital exec and a numbers wizard who, while playing air-drums and listening to death metal, turns his attention to the fact that the entire US housing market is propped up on ‘bad loans’ that he becomes certain will fail.
Hedge funder Mark Baum (Carrell) is a depressive, workaholic sociopath whose growing sense of disgust and anti-authoritarianism informs the film’s heart and conscience.
Jared Vennett (Gosling) is an unconventional banker who smugly addresses the camera as narrator, barely able to contain his overinflated ego.
Meanwhile Ben Rickert (Pitt, who also serves as producer) is a more enigmatic presence – a former banker who has abandoned the profession, but is now tapped by two young up-and-comers for his expertise.
The big failing
As an education, the film partly fails. McKay should be applauded for his compassionate attempt to decipher the crash for mainstream audiences. However, most audiences will be turned off by a film that is composed almost entirely of dialogue about finance (only Carrell’s character is afforded any emotional journey) and many non-Americans will likely struggle with the banking terminology.
As entertainment, it fairs marginally better – the form is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, with a pacing that is powered along by classic American rock and characters who freeze time to address the camera directly. There are also several laughs, with McKay acknowledging the near-impenetrable nature of his subject matter with a near-naked cameo from Margot Robbie (a direct reference to Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street) who from her bubble bath attempts to hold our attentions as she explains subprime mortgages.
The big freeze
McKay’s own lending practices from, namely, the Bank of Scorsese, only serve to remind us how much more engaging – and educational – Scorsese’s own film was in portraying Wall Street wiseguys.
The Big Short is dry and emotionally distant – to complement it, I’d also recommend the excellent 99 Homes, which has been entirely overlooked by the Academy.