There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy and it’s explored in sometimes serious and often darkly funny detail in Adam McKay’s The Big Short. Based on Michael Lewis’s book detailing the people who correctly predicted the housing bubble that burst wide open in 2008, Short chronicles their stories while condemning so many who looked the other way. Prior to this, director McKay has been solely known for Will Ferrell comedies and some of them (The Other Guys and even Anchorman 2) nibbled around the edges with the subject of corporate greed. With this film, McKay manages to balance a complex issue foreign to most viewers while infusing it with much needed humor. It helps because without it, we might just want to scream at the screen for two hours and that still happens from time to time.
Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a highly eccentric hedge fund honcho who figures out that something is majorly wrong with our nation’s housing market about three years before the foundation totally collapses. His timely discoveries are met with skepticism from nearly all corners. The exceptions are from Ryan Gosling’s bond salesman, Steve Carell’s unhappy Wall Street hedge fund manager, and a duo (John Magaro and Finn Wittlock) trying to take their fledgling business into the NYC scene. They all come to believe Burry’s siren calls and they all try to maneuver their way to profit off it. There are no real heroes here, but they really have no idea at first just how corrupt the system is that’s creating the impending doom.
McKay realizes that the many Wall Street technical terms are, frankly, confusing as hell. In a nice stroke, he enlists celebrities like The Wolf of Wall Street ingenue Margot Robbie and others to creatively explain what we are witnessing. It helps, but the director and his cowriter Charles Randolph delve into a deeper truth: no one really understands what’s happening or are willing to own up to it while billions of dollars line the pockets of many. Meanwhile, scores of people believe they can actually afford the pretty home they dwell in.
The Big Short hearkens back to 1970s filmmaking in certain manners. It’s political, has a point of view, and isn’t afraid to show it. If you felt McKay’s annoyance at the elite crowd in those Ferrell pics, this opens up an unmistakable furious floodgate. He’s enlisted a stable of talented performers to tell the tale. In particular, Bale continues to demonstrate his ability to disappear into a role while Carell continues to show his dramatic abilities are just as strong as his comedic ones. Brad Pitt also turns up as an ex banker who helps uncover the fraud. The screenplay provides many guffaws, but this is not a “comedy”, no matter what the awards shows portend. And a well deserved shout out goes to Hank Corwin, the picture’s editor who does a masterful job.
You’ll likely cringe while you’re laughing and that’s the way McKay wants it. The biggest scare is that this effort doesn’t pretend like the crisis explained here won’t occur once again. According to The Big Short, believe it won’t at your own risk and don’t bet the house on it.
***1/2 (out of four)