Director: Adam McKay
Writer: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
A bizarre amalgamation of drama, comedy, and educational documentary, Adam McKay’s The Big Short tells the story of the 2008 housing market collapse through the perspective of four Wall Street men who predicted it years before it happened, and subsequently betted on and profited from it. At its core, it is a film about morality and whether it is moral to benefit from the financial suffering of others. Are the protagonists, who foresaw the disaster and tried to warn people of it any better than the banks and businessmen who caused it? The answer McKay gives us isn’t very clear. The characters admit that what they’re doing is wrong, but someone is going to be taking advantage no matter what, so better them, who on some level feel empathy for the victims, than the immoral perpetrators of their misery. In other words, they’re operating in a morally grey area. Are their reasons—and by extension, McKay’s answer—good enough? Well, that’s up to the audience to decide.
The narrative is introduced directly by Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, who doubles as a device to keep the audience in-the-know. The film, perhaps a little presumptuously, expects that the audience only has a basic knowledge of the financial collapse. He, along with other real-life celebrity cameos (including Margot Robbie in a bubble bath and Selena Gomez playing blackjack), breaks the fourth wall to explain economics jargon like collaterized debt obligations and subprime mortgages. The screenplay is occasionally successful in making what otherwise may be seen as a dry and boring topic interesting and funny, but the cameos lose its lustre halfway through the movie and it all becomes somewhat condescending.
The ensemble cast also includes Christian Bale, who plays Michael Burry, an eccentric, socially incapable genius who is the first to predict the crisis; Brad Pitt, turning in a boring performance as retired banker Ben Rickert; and Steve Carell as hedge-fund manager Mark Baum, who has by far the most interesting character arc. He’s the character through which the film communicates its questions about morality, and the parallel between his failure to see his deceased brother’s pain and eventual suicide and his ability to predict the financial suffering of millions of people is the film’s most compelling and moving plot point.
The Big Short makes several interesting decisions regarding its story and cinematography. Three of the four main storylines (Burry, Rickert, and Baum’s) never connect, and so there’s some lost potential in not having the more fascinating character, Baum, not interacting with the less interesting characters and losing the fireworks that could have resulted. Barry Ackroyd’s documentary-esque shaky camera isn’t aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and this, combined with the constantly moving story, barrage of information and energetic editing—although understandably communicating the film’s anger and outrage at the circumstances depicted—can make the movie overwhelming at times. There’s so much for the audience to take in, but we are rarely given time to absorb it. Neither are the film’s attempts to humanize its arrogant, mostly unlikeable characters very successful. Other than Baum, the only character whose backstory is really given time to, none of the others are well-developed. At times, this leads to it feeling too much like a PSA rather than a film with its characters being more like functions than actual characters.
McKay wants the audience to be angry at the corrupt and greedy establishments that caused the financial collapse, and he does succeed getting us to empathise with the film’s sense of outrage. For the most part, it does fall short in being a compelling character study. It’s much easier to empathise with the victims than the characters’ moral doubts, even if they aren’t actually shown. A lot of this is down to the lack of character development, but it’s also just hard to identify with egotistical, rich, white men who make a fortune off the wrongdoing being shown.