The Big Short review

There is a real anger and sadness to The Big Short, and as wild and as funny as the movie is, the humor never makes light of or sugarcoats the 2008 financial crisis. The humor, if anything, heightens the drama and the pain we see in co-writer/director Adam McKay‘s (Step Brothers) uproarious dramedy.

Based on Michael Lewis‘ (Moneyball) 2010 nonfiction novel, The Big Short spans three years from 2005 to 2008, depicting the collapse only a few men saw coming. A brilliant 33-year-old hedge fund manager, Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), is the first to notice the impending doom in the housing market, and nobody believes him. He starts betting against the bank; he knows he’s right, that everyone else is wrong. However, a few others, unbeknownst to Burry, also know the housing bubble is going to burst. A Deutsche Bank trader, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), one of the coolest used car salesman-types you’ll ever see, and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a rightfully pissed off man, in addition to a few other characters, try to profit off the financial downfall.

Adam McKay and Charles Randolph‘s script seamlessly interweaves all these stories together. We don’t see enough of Burry in the second act, but overall each character’s storyline is given the proper time to breathe and develop. All the characters bring a unique perspective to The Big Short. Burry, Baum, and, a retired investing guru, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who’s helping out some young investors, have their own intentions and their own thoughts on what they’re doing — and what they’re doing isn’t exactly admirable.

These characters are anti-heroes. At the end, Vennett says to the audience he never claimed he was a good guy, and none of these characters would. They’re cashing in on other people’s misery, and yet, you still root for them to succeed. Most of them are sad, conflicted characters. Carell is arguably the lead of this ensemble, and he and Bale are the heart of this story. They both recognize they’re a part of a nasty business, and it disturbs the two men, who are both driven by their pasts.

Burry has always been an outsider, partly due to his glass eye and Asperger’s syndrome, and what he does with his business and his client’s money only isolates him further from those around him. Burry is almost completely cut off from the world, and even when he’s home with his wife and kid, we only see him in his little world — banging the hell out of his drums, all on his own. It’s a very subtle and powerful performance from Bale, in something of a one-man show.

Baum is chasing the one thing — money — that played a part in his personal crisis, involving a tragic loss. The character is a fascinating, sad contradiction. Baum is always outraged by how the banks are screwing people over, but he’s going to make a fortune off a system he can’t stand and that he’s a part of. The Big Short is about truth, and how people do or do not accept it. At the start of each act, a quote appears, and one of them is: “The truth is like poetry. And everyone fucking hates poetry.” Baum, like the rest of the world, hates the truth, both about himself and the world he lives in.

The Big Short is a new kind of film from Adam McKay, but it still has his outrageous sense of humor. Parts of the film are more ridiculous than what we see in Step Brothers or Anchorman, and probably because what we’re seeing in this film is true and relevant — making the jokes funnier and scarier. The humor never undermines the drama of The Big Short; it magnifies it. The one character who tries keep his hands clean of it all is Rickert, who’s not interested in money, only in helping out his young friends. When his buddies celebrate how much cash they’re going to make, he loses it — reminding them of why they’re going to make that money. The tonal whiplash of the scene is entirely effective.

The script is incredibly well-structured, funny, and dramatic. A large portion of The Big Short is exposition, but it’s all exciting to watch. You may not understand everything that’s happening. There’s a lot of information in the film, which is often expressed with ingenious breaking-the-fourth-wall cameos, but you always get the gist of it and what it means to these characters — and that’s all you really need to know.

The Big Short is McKay’s most accomplished directorial effort. He allows the settings, editing, and camerawork tell this story. There’s a trip to Vegas that crystallizes the film, in which we see the pretty girls and bright lights of the city — which is all most people see there — and then McKay cuts to a long shot of a bridge, with homeless people under it. Everyone is too busy to see what’s right there in front of them, and too distracted by the lies they’re being fed. These little dramatic and funny touches are what help build this incredibly satisfying narrative.

9 out of 10

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