The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015)
What is it about Michael Lewis? He’s an author of nonfiction bestsellers whose books keep on being optioned for fiction films (not counting Next: The Future Just Happened, an actual documentary): first came The Blind Side, then Moneyball and now The Big Short. Lewis is a great journalist and an excellent writer, and his works are filled with vivid details about their subjects; I can see why Hollywood would keep calling. I’m just surprised that we haven’t seen more documentary filmmakers attracted to his stories. Then again, sometimes the tales he tells are so outlandish that they seem like something only a screenwriter could invent. Still, if truth is stranger than fiction, then what is lost in its translation to a conventional dramatic form? In the case of The Blind Side, quite a lot (though the film was a hit), since the cloying three-act structure imposed in the name of inspirational narrative diluted the power of the unadulterated original. Moneyball, however, made with greater restraint (and much less of a hit), approached the fine nuance of its source. And what of The Big Short? It’s a giant whale of a story: the global financial meltdown of 2008, rooted in the housing crisis. What will work best? Restraint or bombast?
It turns out both, though they work wonderfully in tandem. When I first heard that the film was co-written and directed by Adam McKay – who gave us Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys and Anchorman 2, all films marked by outrageous comedy, subtlety be damned – I feared the movie would make a mockery of its theme and devolve into caricature and pastiche. I was wrong. McKay takes a difficult topic – including CDOs, CDSs and other toxic assets – makes it eminently understandable to the layperson, and has a terrific amount of fun with it in the process (embracing, rather than ignoring, his roots in broad comedy). He also elicits fine performances from a strong ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale (American Hustle), Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Brad Pitt (Fury). Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) is better than he has been in many of his recent roles, but still can’t tone it down enough to suit me. He doesn’t, however, ruin the movie. Nor does McKay’s decision to switch tones in the last 15 minutes and preach at the audience about the sins of the financial sector. The previous almost-two hours are strong enough to leave an impeccably favorable impression.
If you’ve read the book, all of the major players are here. One by one, we meet a group of men (there are no women) who start to see that the housing bubble of the mid-2000s is built on corruption and lies. They all, at different times and in different places (though some do meet and collaborate), decide to “short” the system by betting against the housing market. They’re the smartest guys in the room, and our heroes. They’re also, in many ways, no better than the bankers who brought down the world’s economy, since they’re in it for their own gain. In fact, if you lost money back then, a lot of it could be in their pockets. But for much of the movie’s running time, the morality of who did what and for what reason is immaterial. McKay opts, instead, to revel in the utter ridiculousness of how the clearly fraudulent housing market could have thrived, in the first place. Brisk and flashy – though quiet when it needs to be – the movie frequently cuts away from the plot to real-life celebrities – Margot Robbie (in a hot tub), Selena Gomez – who stop the action by addressing the audience directly to explain this or that bit of financial mumbo-jumbo. They’re not the only ones to break the fourth wall: even the characters within the story sometimes stop what they’re doing to talk to us, as well. In short, there’s a delightful spirit of cleverness and fun that endlessly animates Lewis’ splendid research. You won’t win your money back by watching The Big Short, but you will have the consolation prize of a great time, and learn a ton about why you lost your money in the first place.