Perhaps the most outré of this year’s crop of outrage cinema, Adam McKay’s The Big Short turns economic catastrophe into bitter farce, at times hilarious in its excesses, at others terrifying in its veracity. Presenting the 2008 financial meltdown as a pairing of pre-apocalyptic paranoia and satirical savagery, McKay portrays subprime loans as a virulent strain of banker malfeasance and unqualified homebuyers as unwitting carriers on the verge of unleashing a pandemic. Yet, while The Big Short can grow distracting and occasionally exasperating in its overblown delivery, McKay never eases back from the genuine indignation at the film’s center.
Granted, I’m mystified by the nuts and bolts of The Big Short; even with the dumbed-down, celebrity cameo-led explanations McKay provides, I’m still not 100 percent sure just what the hell a synthetic collateralized debt obligation is, or how you manage to bet against the housing market in the first place. (The movie explains these two things in detail, but my brain, in the midst of its annual child-induced pre-Christmas cognitive deterioration, refused to let any of these clarifications stick.) Doesn’t matter, though; the thesis—all this industry jargon fits under the umbrella of really shitty shit, and the banks are all shortsighted, avarice-laden shit factories that poisoned our economy with this shittiness—gets put forth with the gleeful, frenetic energy of a great heist film, albeit one where you know the outcome and the fourth wall gets treated like a tent flap.
The performances here are reminiscent of American Hustle, where (almost) each protagonist shows a mélange of quirks and oversized traits that require a slight acclimatization period. (Not so much for Brad Pitt, who gives a wonderfully gruff, no-frills turn as jaded ex-banker Ben Rickert. But everyone else seems to be operating at various levels of awards-bait mania.) Ryan Gosling gives a greasy, charmingly hateable performance as morally-compromised bank trader Jared Vennett, oozing greed and frat-boyish entitlement. Yet he never becomes a prime target for schadenfreude, thanks to the no-bullshit pragmatism Gosling uses to temper the rot at Vennett’s core. More noticeable is Bale’s Michael Burry, self-diagnosed with Asperger’s and a mountain of ticks and social awkwardness. Bale swings for the fences—I’m guessing they used CGI to depict Burry’s glass eye, but I wouldn’t put it past Bale to go full method with a sewing needle—and mostly connects, even if he never seems to squarely land on whether he wants Burry to be loathsome or sympathetic.
The less said about Steve Carrell the better. (God, I’d hate to see the hairpieces he turned down.)
It’s weird to see McKay taking such a sincere slant with the story (OK, sincere by McKay’s standards), even weirder to think he maintains a stronger, more palpable sense of outrage about the subject than 99 Homes, Ramin Bahrani’s thematic cousin from earlier this year. Where Bahrani’s take on the other side of the housing crisis eventually devolves into a righteous slog, McKay never feels the urge to idealize his protagonists. These men are all horrified by the financial devastation they predict, but they capitalize on it nonetheless, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars thanks to their faith in the criminality infecting our nation’s core financial institutions. The Big Short doesn’t give us heroes; it gives us opportunists and doomsayers, all delivering a lesson not in the prevention of the next financial crisis, but in its inevitability. It’s an injustice that stings long after McKay’s silliness fades away.