With The Big Short, Adam McKay takes on somewhat different material than the Will Ferrell vehicles for which he’s best known. Based on Michael Lewis’ book about the handful of investors who saw the financial meltdown of 2008 coming before anyone else, and made a profit off it, this is still a comedy, but one drawn from a far more familiar reality. Serious actors like Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling are headliners (along with aspiring serious actor Steve Carell) and they each anchor a different narrative thread, all intended to spin the same yarn: how a corrupt and ignorant financial system nearly brought down the American economy.
I wish I could say that McKay, whose Ferrell films are personal favorites of mine, stuck the landing on this artistic leap. This is complicated stuff, involving terms like collateralized debt obligation and derivative markets, and The Big Short is only partially successful in making things clear. Amusing asides — in which, say, Margot Robbie appears as herself in a bubble bath to explain derivatives — cleverly keep us up to speed on the basics. But there are still large sections of the film that are hard to follow, especially dramatically, as the characters’ fortunes rise and fall depending on various market factors. In the end, I came out knowing more about the root causes of the financial crisis than I did going in, but I never had enough of a grasp of the specific implications for its characters to truly be invested in them.
Giving an actor like Bale a glass eye to play with is a bit like giving a match to an arsonist.
The performances also kept me at a distance. One thing that unites the men who played this game and won was that they were all eccentric in some way, and McKay emphasizes that by letting his actors go wild. Bale plays Michael Burry, a medical doctor turned investor who blasts death metal in his office, occasionally stutters and has a glass eye. Giving an actor like Bale a glass eye to play with is a bit like giving a match to an arsonist. As for Carell, who plays boorish investment banker Mark Baum, he makes his entrance by arriving late to a support group meeting, loudly takes over the conversation, gets a cell phone call and abruptly leaves. That about sums up his effect on the film.
Gosling is a bit easier to take as another investor, Jared Vennett, if only because he’s quite funny. Vennett seems as concerned about his “art of the deal” image as the deals themselves, so he mostly speaks in florid metaphors and is constantly accompanied by an overeager assistant who fumbles through their elaborate presentations.
In terms of form, The Big Short goes for a docudrama aesthetic that’s at odds with these exaggerated performances. There are dramatic freeze frames and quick zooms into the characters’ faces, as if this was raw footage being captured by an unseen news crew. The film is also peppered with stock-footage montages of cultural references circa 2008 — an insert shot of an iPhone here, an American soldier hugging his wife there — but they’re not organized in a way that provides clever, contextual commentary. By its end, The Big Short abandons the pretext of being a comic dramatization at all and adopts the admonishing tone of an activist documentary. I understand – and sympathize – with the movie’s sardonic anger. I just wish it had the coherence of its convictions.