Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” tackles a weighty subject through a peculiar blend of comedy and drama that’s mostly successful. Based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book of the same name, the film follows several people in the world of high finance who essentially predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse that caused the 2008 financial crisis and profited from it.
McKay’s semi-comedic approach seems odd at first. However, McKay, who wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph, doesn’t trivialize the situation nor does he glorify the people involved. Instead, the humor is used to emphasize the sheer ridiculousness and chaos of the situation and the utter stupidity and greed of those involved in this massive financial collapse. (In a lot of ways, the picture’s black comedic vibes are similar to Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”) When we laugh, it’s usually out of discomfort or disbelief.
The picture also takes many opportunities to poke fun at its main characters: an eclectic band of smart, socially awkward weirdos, to say the least. Leading the bunch is hedge-fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale using his chameleon-like acting abilities to disappear into his role once again), the first one to catch on to this unfortunate trend in housing. As the movie goes on, Bale’s presence decreases. He spends the majority of his scenes barricaded in his office like a hermit, listening to heavy metal music on full blast or banging on his own set of drums.
Then there’s eccentric money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who appears to have come equipped with a permanent B.S. detector, not afraid to speak his mind or call out other people’s stupidity during meetings.
Also along for the ride are Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, arrogant and with a tan); Vinnie Daniel (Jeremy Strong), who works with Baum; Charlie Geller (John Magaro); Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock); and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, in an effective, low-key role), among others. While it could be argued that Baum emerges as the main character, “The Big Short” is very much an ensemble film. Each actor carries his respective weight, forming a cohesive unit, and when they cross paths, they have an effortless tragi-comedic chemistry.
In terms of style, the picture switches back and forth between realistic, hand-held, cinema verite-style scenes and hectic, absurdist asides; sudden flashbacks and flash-forwards; characters breaking the fourth wall; slick montages; and cutaways that contribute to the film’s comedic demeanor. These stylistic flourishes keep the film going at a steady pace and show awareness (on the filmmaker’s part) of the denser, more complex aspects of the story.
“The Big Short” presents a lot of information to the viewer, including dry technical terms and concepts pertaining to finance and the housing market (terms that aren’t going to make sense to a novice), in an accessible and often humorous way.
Yet, at its core, “The Big Short” is very serious, terrifying even. During the last third, everything slows down and there are no comedic asides. The film sheds its black comedic tone and simply turns black.
As much as one may laugh during “The Big Short,” you ultimately walk out feeling icky. McKay’s picture may not always work — it loses focus at times, and there are a few comedic montages that could be cut out — but it’s an absorbing film, nonetheless.