Unpacking big, complex issues and distilling them into a comprehensible 2 hour viewing experience is no easy task. Director Adam McKay attempts to do just that, though, with the 2007 housing crisis in The Big Short, an adaptation of a New York Times non-fiction bestseller by Michael Lewis. It mostly succeeds at effectively conveying its information in an understandable manner while also managing to be entertaining in telling the story of the biggest financial collapse of modern history.
The story is revolves around three groups of people who were essentially voices in the desert proclaiming the financial crisis of 2007 a few years before it happened and managed to profit off of it. Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) runs a company out in California who foresees the collapse before anyone, and gets the major banks to create a credit default swap for him on home mortgages, basically meaning that if massive amounts of home loans are defaulted on, he and his investors would make massive amounts of money. The big banks, believing the housing market to be secure and a sure thing that would never, ever turn to this degree, gladly accept because they think they are essentially getting free money from him. Burry’s activity catches the eye of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, and also the narrator), who takes the information to a hedge fund manager named Mark Baum (Steve Carrell). Vennett also creates a report saying the market will collapse, that is largely ignored by his peers, but is picked up in the lobby of JP Morgan Chase by two young investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who take the information to Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a retired investment banker that they know and enlist to help them.
What follows is an outsider’s inside look at history and the collapse of 2007. There’s a lot of confusing talk about CDOs, swaps, AAA ratings, sub-prime loans, traunches and other potentially boring an complex terms that are everyday lingo in the world of Wall St. but go completely over most people’s heads. McKay hilariously uses celebrities like Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath), Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez to explain these things in a way that is accessible for almost everybody. Along with Gosling breaking the fourth wall throughout the film, it is helpful as well as entertaining and kept me from having my eyes glaze over. The film also never gets lost in the numbers and is able to focus on the people involved. Even if you don’t understand it all, you can at least follow what the characters are doing on a basic level.
The one thing it doesn’t entirely make clear is whether these are people we as an audience should be rooting for, as they are taking advantage of a market system that is wildly out of whack and benefitting by betting against the economy and people’s homes. Thankfully, there is one scene between Pitt’s Rickert and the two young investors he’s helping where he reprimands them for essentially “spiking the ball in the end zone” about what they’re doing and lays out for them to real-life impact this will have on everyday people.
Carrell’s Mark Baum is abrasive and caustic and always angry. Carrell plays him for some good laughs, but at the same time he comes across as a man full of righteous indignation at the unjust nature of so much of what he sees people around him doing. When he alerted to what is going on with the housing market and just how much of a house of cards it is, he is apoplectic and shocked at how casual and cavalier so many people are who he talks to. It’s a very good performance in a difficult role.
Bale is essentially in his own film within a film as Burry, the man who starts it all, never interacting with the other main cast members and seen most of the time in the office of his California business. He is a socially awkward man who has little more than his smarts and the strength of his convictions, even as his mentor and other investors call him crazy and revolt and sue for their money. But his resolve to see it through to the end, even when it gets truly ugly before he finally starts to see the fruits of his labors.
Gosling is given perhaps the best role in the film, getting to narrate as well as act like the coolest guy in the room at all times and have great interactions with Baum and his crew, played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, and Jeremy Strong in great supporting roles. They do a lot of legwork in getting to the bottom of whether Gosling’s Vennett is telling them the truth and finding out if the sky really is falling or not.
There’s a lot of information to disperse in this film’s 130 minute runtime, and handled incorrectly it could have been a snoozer about a very important subject in modern history. Instead, Adam McKay, the man best known for collaboration with Will Ferrell in Anchorman and other comedies, has crafted a smart, witty, entertaining, and scathing critique of Wall St. and what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what was or was not done about it afterward.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars