The filmmaker who cut his teeth on Will Ferrell comedies has switched gears to make this hyper-cynical dark comedy about the mortgage crisis and eventual economy collapse of the late 2000s. Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager with Aspergers, realizes how unstable the housing market is when he starts doing the math. Of course, no one believes him or even wants to believe him, so banks allow him to bet against the housing market by creating a credit default swap. Everyone thinks Burry is nuts, but one night at a bar his outrageous investment is overheard by Jared Vennet, an unbelievable bro-dawg investor played Ryan Gosling. Vennet accidentally calls hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and then two rookie investors Jamie Shipley (John Magaro) and Charlie Gellar (Finn Wittrock) accidentally discover a document about it while waiting to meet with Jared Vennett in his lobby for a meeting. It’s very comical how all the main players happen to stumble upon this investment opportunity by chance, and for the next two hours we switch back and forth from the three separate groups trying to profit and also, especially in Baum’s case, come to terms with how shamelessly greedy corporate America has become.
The film does a great job analyzing the possible reasons while these practices have become so criminal and while most of the film (especially the dialogue) is sharp and funny, some of the humor is a little too on-the-nose. There is a re-occurring segment where celebrities explain complex investment mumbo jumbo in a “fun” and “exciting” way. This was an unnecessary gimmick that not only took me out of the picture but felt like a lazy way to simplify difficult concepts. Also, the fourth wall breaking becomes a bit repetitive after a while. We all understand that McKay and crew are clever so they really don’t need to beat us over the head with it.
The highlight of the film is the acting. Christian Bale is fantastically subtle as always while Ryan Gosling makes the perfect douche bag. Magaro and Wittrock are solid as the rookie investors and Brad Pitt does the best he can with a role that’s really a one-dimensional caricature as the rookies’ financial advisor. The real stand-out of the movie is Steve Carrell as the out-spoken and foul-mouthed hedge fund manager Mark Baum. He’s the closest thing The Big Short has to a protagonist. While making him a very eccentric and entertaining presence, Carrell also imbues him with striking relatability. Although dealing with the suicide of his brother is a plot device that is used a little too conveniently to get the waterworks pumping, Carrell plays his emotional scenes with a surprising amount of restraint while succeeding in making Baum outlandish in other scenes. It’s an incredibly well balanced performance, the best of Carrell’s career, and it deserves some serious Oscar consideration.
Adam McKay’s The Big Short actually works better as a drama than it does a comedy. When all the jokes settle and the characters are left to bask in how fucking awful the situation is, that’s when the film really takes flight. The Big Short is far from perfect, but with it, Adam McKay has made his most passionate and urgent film to date. I can’t wait to see what he does next. Grade: B+