In adapting the 2010 financial-crisis book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, the director of Anchorman doesn’t seem like the first choice. And yet, it becomes clear that Adam McKay, known for his comedic work on Saturday Night Live and with Will Ferrell, is clearly the right man for the job, because the humor is absolutely necessary to cut through the rage you might feel at the material. The film clearly lays out the intricacies of the 2008 global financial crisis, demonstrating the ways in which bankers wrung money out of a housing market made out of wishes and dreams.
The Big Short is anchored by big-name stars in goofy hair and accents, including Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Christian Bale, who are uniformly excellent all around as the loners, idiot-savants and misanthropes of Wall Street. They are the tenuously connected individuals who envisioned the spectacular crash of a housing market built on the rickety foundations of subprime mortgages propped up by false ratings.
If that sounds like too much wonky financial jargon, not to worry, McKay takes a speedy rat-a-tat-tat approach to the material and throws everything at the wall, stylistically speaking. The Big Short is postmodern to the max, self-reflective, a hodge-podge of fast editing and fast talking, breaking the fourth wall again and again to keep the story moving along, to clarify things, or to say “that really happened,” or “that didn’t really happen.” McKay never dumbs down the explanations of the complicated financial products, but he does take the time to jazz up things like “synthetic collateralized debt obligation” with cheeky celebrity cameos.
The rapid-fire editing creates some clever sequences in which he cuts between the various groups having similar reactions to events in the financial market, united in sentiment. They are cut as if talking to each other, even if they’re on completely different sides of the country, and it’s an ingenious way to link the disparate groups. There’s also a fantastic sound design that goes along with the editing, blending voices and sound effects rhythmically throughout.
To lesser effect is McKay’s reliance on quick cuts of contextless images to create a sense of the era. Images of soldiers are back to back with celebrities, family vignettes and small-town scenes. It jogs the neurons that might have repressed the pop culture of 2007-08, but it’s a bit much.
Steve Carell’s grieving, rage-filled Mark Baum is the conscience of the film. As he talks to more and more bankers, brokers, real-estate agents, and strippers with mortgages on multiple properties, his face seems to get redder and redder, his boiling point breached. He’s never one to mince words, and he is the loud-mouthed canary in the coal mine. Still, when he’s proven right and the sky has fallen, there’s no sense of victory, just disappointment. It’s as if they took these high-risk bets hoping they might be wrong.
As we know, they weren’t wrong. The irony is that our heroes end up making a huge windfall off the events that precipitated economic ruin for the larger population. The Big Short is funny, but it builds to a dour crescendo that feels all too familiar, managing to enrage anew with the hindsight-clear reminder of our not-so-distant past.
‘The Big Short’
Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity. 2:10. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Nicholasville.