If you’re looking to watch something uplifting and inspiring over the holiday season, you might do well to skip The Big Short in favor of, say, Creed. Or perhaps The Revenant. Even Krampus might bring you more seasonal cheer, in fact. The Big Short is funny and incisive – often intermittently, but still – and is probably McKay’s most complex and mature film to date. But it will nevertheless leave you feeling somewhat depressed or vaguely angry, even as you’re also left wondering exactly what you’re supposed to be having these feelings about.
Based on the best-selling book by Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball), The Big Short changes most of the names but largely keeps the facts straight: for some time, Wall Street funds were selling financial “products” that were packages of bad mortgage loans – thousands of them, in fact. When an eccentric analyst named Michael Burry realized in 2005 that those loans were sure to default within a few years, he created something called the “credit default swap,” an instrument that would “short” the housing market and essentially allow Burry and others to make obscene amounts of money even as that market – and then the global economy – came crashing down.
If you’re not sure that you understand that paragraph above, don’t worry: I wrote it and I’m not certain I know what it means either. That’s one of the aspects of the entire affair that McKay – in the screenplay he has co-written with Charles Randolph – takes pains to highlight: these financial “products” are deliberately made confusing to keep the truth about what they are from being fully revealed, certainly to the public and perhaps even some of the players involved. McKay stops the action once in a while to have a celebrity dish out some exposition: Here’s Margot Robbie lounging in a tub! Here’s Selena Gomez at a blackjack table! They don’t necessarily do a great job of clarifying things either, but it’s an amusing (and eventually wearying) way to comment on the fact that nobody really knew anything at all.
Except perhaps Burry. As played by Christian Bale, the off-center money manager and heavy metal fan is ostensibly the movie’s villain – he sets the whole depraved chain of events in motion – but also splits duties as its conscience with Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a skeptical hedge fund manager who has been decrying Wall Street tactics for years yet finds himself almost helpless to stop his own company from shoving their noses into the trough created by Burry’s “products.” Baum is led down the path by the slick Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling in an eye-opening wig), who’s the embodiment of a soulless, young, glib would-be master of the universe.
All three actors are fine; Bale’s Burry is cerebral and detached from it all until he realizes what he has wrought late in the game, and you can feel the horror emanating from him. Carell has perhaps the most complex role as a man who both loves and hates his work at the same time, while Gosling is a devil in a blue suit. A third story – perhaps the most underdeveloped of the bunch – finds a world-weary Brad Pitt getting back in the game one last time to help two young brokers get a seat at the table, although his motivations are fuzzy at best.
McKay has always had a social conscience in his work outside of films like Talladega Nights and Anchorman, and it’s clear that The Big Short is perhaps more important to him than anything else he’s done. Kudos to him for that, and for pushing a studio to release a movie about the insanity, recklessness and greed that still pervades our financial sector to this day, making another crash almost seem inevitable. But while this is certainly leaps and bounds past the generally juvenile (if entertaining) antics of his previous films, McKay can’t quite make all the parts work here.
For starters, he doesn’t overcome the challenge of making all this economic voodoo decipherable to people sitting in a movie theater, and there are times when the viewer won’t have a clue what the cast is talking about. More importantly, he wants to have his cake and eat it too (much like the guys he’s slamming) by treating the 2008 catastrophe both as absurdist comedy and as the tragedy it truly was. But the multiple plotlines and shifting tone never quite gel, so when the movie veers into all-dark territory during the third act it lacks the gravitas and impact that you imagine the director really wanted it to have.
Perhaps it’s just not possible to talk about these events in the language of comedy, especially when a film like the searing 99 Homes shoves the very human cost of these monsters’ hijinks into your face and dares you to shrug it off. Even 2011’s Margin Call was more effective at painting the crisis in straight thriller terms. McKay is, sincerely, to be commended for taking such an ambitious shot at this material, the importance of which cannot be stressed enough. But in cluttering this busy motion picture with those celebrity drop-ins, snappy one-liners, blackouts and other comedy tricks, he ironically sells his message short.
The Big Short is out in limited release now and expands nationwide on December 23.