Director Adam McKay’s (‘Anchorman’, ‘Step Brothers’) star-studded, ensemble Oscar contender, ‘The Big Short’, has the hefty goal of presenting an entertaining primer on the financial shenanigans that led to the housing/credit bubble burst of the mid-to-late 2000s. In this, it mainly succeeds, with direct meta call-outs to the audience, chronological juxtaposition of current events and a killer soundtrack to provide reference to the timeframe, and a strong bevy of performances from an engaged cast of name actors.
The film opens with cheeky narration by a cocksure Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett, who sets the stage with a bludgeon. He introduces a twitchy, anti-social Christian Bale as Michael Burry, a genius medical doctor with a hedge fund and an obsessive compulsive attention to the numbers behind the numbers. Burry sees the writing under the wall – that subprime mortgages, so popular at the turn of the century, were not sustainable for a regularly inflating real estate market, as they were backed by unstable loans. At the same time, other small-time players start coming to the same conclusions. These include a rowdy, righteous Steve Carell playing Mark Baum, after the aforementioned Gosling presents his case using a Jenga game as a visual aid, an apt metaphor for the information processed by Burry. Also at the same time, two young upstarts, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock, far from ‘American Horror Story’) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), stumble upon it as well and enlist the help of a cartoony Brad Pitt’s paranoid retired broker Ben Rickert.
The metaphors fly fast and loose in the screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph (adapted from best-selling author Michael Lewis‘ (‘Moneyball’, ‘The Blind Side’) novel of the same name). In some of the most inspired sequences of the movie, McKay enlists famous faces like Margot Robbie (‘The Wolf of Wall Street’), chef Anthony Bourdain, and Selina Gomez to explain things in layman’s turns. Since the cast is so game and the activity on screen is so brisk, the film gives short-shrift to those who caused the mess to begin with, and to those most affected by it. Both ends of this spectrum get vignettes that both demonize and victimize respectively, as far as each’s responsibility for both skirting the fiduciary laws as well as taking any personal responsibility, which comes across as a bit too flippant.
Maybe it’s just too big of a subject, but there is a defining cinematic (maybe a cable mini-series) representation still to come out of this material. A work of art that can marry up all of the disparate pieces of this maddening, complicated puzzle, that was fueled by Wall Street greed, unchecked by government regulation, and rooted in Americans’ desire for a pursuit of happiness beyond reasonable means. This film effectively tells a small portion of the mortgage crisis in an entertaining way, but when it tries to reach towards its’ lofty goal of transcendence, it comes up just a little bit ‘short’ (couldn’t resist).
Directed By: Adam McKay
Written By: Charles Randolph & Adam McKay
Running Time: 130 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B+