The Big Short (directed by a noticeably genre shifting Adam McKay) is not a film that finds any profundities or revelations as it scrutinizes the shortsighted, selfish behavior that lead to the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, it is righteous call to arms that begs its audience to be infuriated with that selfish behavior. The film is an energetic, angry examination of the circumstances that lead to the financial crisis that could easily have been titled “Can You Believe This Shit Even Happened!?”
An all star line up of talent that includes Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt have been assembled as the film’s leads and they do excellent work. Nobody in the cast (save for Carell) gets any showy actor moments that get people in the Oscars race. Instead, McKay utilizes each actor’s charisma and screen presence to great effect. This is a movie with a ton of exposition that manages not to feel like somebody adapted an economics textbook into a feature film. If you are curious about why that is, it might have something to do with the fact that Bale, Pitt, Gosling and Carell are all fantastic actors that can grab your attention and hold it effortlessly.
The other reason the movie moves along at such a brisk pace is McKay’s kinetic direction. After The Other Guys and Anchorman 2, I was beginning to think that McKay’s biggest problem as a director was his inability to recognize what to leave on the cutting room floor (seriously, Anchorman 2 is much better then it gets credit for…it is just half an hour too long). The Big Short is evidence that I was wrong and that McKay can keep the running time to an effective and reasonable length.
McKay takes this talent and energy and puts it towards infuriating the audience. Everyone who in the film who ought to be responsible and intelligent is portrayed as childish assholes all concerned with making money and looking cool. Anyone familiar with McKay’s own Step Brothers will recognize these guys as akin for Derek Huff (Adam Scott) and the rest of the corporate jerks hosting the Catalina Wine Mixer. A bunch of chest pounding bros who aren’t evil so much as dangerously ignorant. These are men who have grown up in a culture of excess and are now the distinct by product of that culture. They want as big of a number on their paychecks as possible and are simply confused about why they should not exploit people to get that number.
Here in lies what I think might be the genius of McKay’s film. There are no profundities, no keen insights into the corrupting nature of capitalism because the men he is examining are not the product of anything profound or interesting. They are the product of worshiping millionaire athletes instead of people who actually do good things in the world. They are the products of listening to songs every day about getting rich that actually made the people singing the songs get rich. These men are as shallow and empty as the culture of excess that they are byproducts of. McKay is blunt about letting all of these excessive pop culture fixtures exist prominently in the film and he even marks the passage of time by showing the Apple products that came out that year (a brilliant use of product placement if ever there was one).
The film stages a number of great scenes that display just how culpable the banks are for the financial crisis. There is a scene where one character brags about coaxing confused immigrants to sign mortgages without understanding them, only to have the other exclaim that he likes to go after people with even lower credit ratings. My jaw dropped multiple times watching the film and I guarantee no moment in cinema this year will have you as dumbfounded and anrgy as the last bit of closing text that brings you up to speed on what happened between the events of the film and the present day.
Overall, I don’t hesitate to say that The Big Short is a movie that everybody should see once. You won’t believe what you learn over the course of its running time and it is absolutely knowledge that everyone should have. It’s funny, fast paced and you’ll learn something vital. I don’t imagine repeat viewings or in depth analysis will yield as much rewards as they will for something like The Hateful Eight but I also can’t imagine any film this year getting you as fired up about wanting social change as this one does.