Remember when director Adam McKay seemingly randomly threw a bunch of facts about the financial crisis of 2008 on the screen as it related to Bernie Madoff’s actions during the end credits of that silly Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg buddy “cop” movie The Other Guys? Seemed a little odd at the time, right? Sure, the villain of the piece is the sort of scummy uber-billionaire that got his riches in part by scamming off hard-working regular joes’ pension funds, but the tone of The Other Guys seemed at odds with the incendiary and downright polemical mini-documentary of a sort that accompanied its credits. It was clear back in 2010 that McKay was no fan of Madoff or AIG or Lehman Brothers or any of the litany of other people and corporations behind the catastrophic collapse of the housing market that turned over the world economy, but it wouldn’t become just how clear until the release of The Big Short, an awards contending December prestige drama with a stacked cast, and a huge departure for the director of such films like the Anchorman series and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. But it has been a long held adage that passion is a necessary ingredient for great art, and McKay evidently has passion by the boatload when it comes to this particular topic.
McKay tells the true story of how the market went bust from a multi-quadrant perspective. One one hand is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric hedge fund manager known to blast thrash metal in his office and walk around barefoot who was one of the first to begin to bet heavily against subprime mortgages (i.e. betting they would fail due to shady loan practices, known as “shorting”). As he discovers the bubble forming in the housing market, so too does Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, doing double duty as narrator in character), who tries to get other funds to go along with bulk buying these questionable subprime mortgage packages until he accidentally finds allies in a small fund headed by Mark Baum (Steve Carell). The last piece of the puzzle is two young upstarts, Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock) who similarly stumble on Vennett’s plan accidentally, but need help in raising the capital and prestige of their position high enough to work with the big banks. They find that through their friend Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former Wall Street man who got out of the business when it got too dark, but can’t resist what looks like a sure thing for a huge payout. Soon, they all discover the true depth of corruption and shady dealings that rot the core of the whole enterprise, but find themselves too locked into their schemes to do anything but dig themselves deeper.
A key aspect to the design of The Big Short is the fact that, perhaps outside of Steve Carell’s Mark Baum and Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert, none of the characters in this film are particularly likable. None of these managers or employees report their findings to the SEC or any other sort of regulatory body, even after it becomes clear that the S&P is rating these mortgages disingenuously. These are the sort of people who took advantage of the greed of the big banks to make their own money, clearly trying to get as much out of it as possible before the rest of the world got wise. Sure, it’s doubtful that if they had acted more chivalrously anything could have been done to stop the momentum of the slow crash, but it is notable that no one even bothered trying. They all have dollar signs in their eyes. It makes sense, then, that the actors play their roles in such an unlikable fashion.
Bale gleefully internalizes the sort of socially awkward slightly spectrum-y nerd genius trope (think Donald Glover in The Martian, or, to a lesser extent, Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina), walking around barefoot and rocking out to Mastodon in his office while the rest of his coworkers side-eye him from their cubicles. Gosling is every dude-bro business major turned obnoxiously successful hedge funder, made doubly so by constantly breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience as an extension of his narration duties. Carell and Pitt are less outwardly antagonistic; Carell is the man who knows what he is doing is wrong but cannot resist the payout (though, much like Foxcatcher, he seems to have a tendency to play dramatic by keying in on specific mannerisms and playing them up), and Pitt more reserved and withdrawn, trying not to entirely give himself back over to the industry he abandoned to save his soul. It is quite the ensemble on paper, and it takes a good chunk of time to fully find McKay’s wavelength. Prior to that, it can be difficult watching a bunch of scummy people be scummy, but once it is evident that this approach is in fact the point, feelings about The Big Short become both more complicated and more intriguing.
What is much more difficult to come to grips with is some of the decisions McKay makes as a director and screenwriter (sharing a screenwriting credit with Charles Randolph, based on a book by Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame). The aforementioned narration and fourth wall breaking never sits well, even when understood that Gosling’s playing his character as an irritant purposefully, and cameos from the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez designed to punch up some of the dryer exposition (Robbie gives her speech lounging in a bubble bath) by having a hot/famous woman say it comes off as more manipulative (in an unintended way) than entertaining. It is a gambit that could potentially work as a one-off piece of absurdity in an otherwise serious story, but the warts begin to show when the device is repeated. The rest of the direction is mostly fine, and the script can be a cracker from time to time (and not as reliant on comedy as one might expect from McKay), but these moments that break away from the cohesion of the story are too structured and too pointed to achieve their true goal. They drag the rest of what is going on down with them.
It is undeniable that McKay is passionate about this project and the true events behind it. One does not have to have seen the credits of The Other Guys to realize that. However, it is also apparent that McKay might not be the right man to tell this tale. Other films that have circled the events of the financial crisis, like Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly and J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (likely the most direct corollary to The Big Short), and they are all simply more interesting and engaging takes. While there are times McKay’s film is enjoyable to watch, and while the performances are decent and the writing can be solid from time to time, there are too many stumbles and hitches along the way that prevent it from picking up steam. It is tough to call The Big Short a failure because it never stops being interesting and its heart is squarely in the right place, but it does not succeed in its goals. Unfortunately, there isn’t a better word for it, noble though it may be.