4.5 / 5 stars
If you don’t think hard-hitting humor is appropriate for global economic disaster, consider The Big Short. According to the film, based on Michael Lewis’s book, the 2008 housing crisis / banking debacle was caused by such a powerful vortex of morons and cheats, you just have to laugh. Or scream. So the offbeat and exceptional choice of Adam McKay (Step Brothers, Anchorman 2) as co-writer and director really works, as do a collection of riotous ripshit performances from Steve Carell, Christian Bale and other talented guys being angry. The Big Short is an amazingly watchable scream of a movie, way more fun than a depressing real-life story should be. And more enlightening as well.
Comparatively, a less effective take on the topic is Too Big to Fail, which earnestly aimed to educate, but lacked the cathartic release. One false acting move there (and Too Big has a couple) feels like so much brow-furrowing and hand-wringing. McKay keeps it wilder, delivering the frantic energy of the period and inviting us to get pissed off, root for the little guy, and laugh at the shitheads all at once. The film has a brutal honesty that’s infectious: After speaking to a smug investor who details the deplorable ways he makes money, Steve Carell’s character tells him he’s a tremendous piece of shit. This is the way life should sound.
But that’s just the attitude of The Big Short. The storytelling is equally intriguing, a procedural of parallel stories about a small handful of guys who saw the collapse coming – two years in advance. First we get the loony, lonely Michael Burry, an M.D.-turned-hedge fund genius who discovers that the sub-prime mortgage fund game will destroy the system once homeowners begin defaulting on their loans. And, as is the case in well-crafted underdog stories, nobody believes him.
Burry, whom Bale plays as a compendium of tics and idiosyncrasies, working in bare feet and playing Metallica, is sure of one thing: He’s not wrong. It’s this firm dedication that makes him immediately likable and leads us to the other guys looking to buck the system, right wrongs, or both.
The most notable is Carell as Baum, a DIY investor who’s angry as hell about the hand life has dealt him. He despises Wall Street and the people in it, enough to disrupt his anger management group (sad and hilarious) and then block a guy from getting into a cab. In Baum’s perfect world, he’d expose and humiliate every scumbag con artist on Earth – if that’s not the makings of a movie hero, I don’t know what is.
But Carell is a skilled actor, and he makes Baum more complicated than that. He’s outspoken and sincere, but he’s also whiny and pushy. Carell has to move Baum just far enough to one side for the audience to cheer him on. The script, by McKay and Chris Randolph, helps in a couple spots, but Carell carries a lot of weight here and his performance is the unsung brilliance of The Big Short.
In case you weren’t sure of the film’s overexcited nature, McKay shreds the fourth wall with not just one, but two conceits. The first is the more traditional, with Ryan Gosling narrating the story as Jared Vennett, an overconfident money-hungry douchebag who is still oddly appealing. He even admits to the camera “I can feel you judging me.” Gosling’s performance fits the film perfectly, like a guy revved up on Red Bull and ego.
The second construct will strike many as tacky: real-life celebrities interrupt the narrative to explain something frustratingly complicated. Don’t understand sub-prime mortgages? Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to help. This happens a handful of times, and it doesn’t have the giddy lift I think McKay is shooting for. But it does say two things remarkably well: This subject matter is beyond complex and this movie has an awful lot of fun trying to explain it.