The Big, Bold Joke of American Capitalism

The Big Short
(USA, 130 min.)
Dir. Adam McKay, Writ. Adam McKay, Charles Randolph
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo.
Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling star in The Big Short

The difference between The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street is the distinction between a metteur en scène and an auteur. Both films tackle the world of high finance with a snap and a swagger, but only the latter film by Martin Scorsese does so with a distinctly artistic panache. There’s a higher meaning to the style and excess of the Scorsese film and while Adam McKay’s comparably loony The Big Short doesn’t carry the same level of finesse, but it’s still great entertainment.

The Big Short surprises as a major step forward for McKay, the director of the Anchorman movies and other silly stuff, and this turn at serious comedy arguably grabs the title for being the most accessible film about the economic crisis aimed at mainstream audiences. The film puts a spin on the story of a crew of guys who anticipated the downturn, bet against the housing market, and made it rich while uncovering the grotesqueries of American capitalism. Christian Bale stars as eccentric hedge fund investor Michael Burry who first grasps the rottenness of the banks’ convoluted lending schemes and decides to bet big that the shit will one day hit the fan on America’s business of pushing homes as the image of a successful life.

Anyone who doesn’t know the lingo about the elements at play in The Big Short is in good hands with McKay’s playful ability to break the fourth wall and have characters explain economics in layman’s terms. These self-reflexive asides smartly acknowledge the public’s disinterest in the dry facts of finance, so The Big Short invites incongruous players to be the teachers. For example, Margot Robbie explains how mortgages work while sipping champagne in a hot tub. The fine print rarely receives much interest, but if a beautiful bathing woman explains things, every detail becomes essential. Robbie’s bubbly explanation also reveals one crucial element—namely, that America’s long cherished economic practices are a joke.

The farce of American Capitalism gets another kick in the butt with a parallel storyline that develops when Wall Street watchdog Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his band of merry men get wind of Burry’s trades. These guys are all jaded by the soulless cash grabbing of the banks and traders, so hedging a bet against American ideology feels extra sweet for them. Unlike Mark, though, Baum and his crew dig deeper and deeper into the factors that precipitate the housing crisis. They uncover a broken system by interviewing lenders, creditors, and homeowners. All of these scenes carry a whiff of something rotten as the satirical portraits of bro bankers and shady creditors (the latter is played by a fun Melissa Leo in a brief role) reveal players in a stacked game. The characters whom Baum and company encounter probably don’t need much creative license to be comical, for The Big Short plays the system for what it is: a big joke.

The smart screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph, adapted from the book by Mark Lewis (Moneyball), captures the soul-crushing truths of the economic crisis that leave about ninety-nine percent of society bitter and jaded. The film draws ample laughs while characterizing the absurdity of the situation and the failures of both the government and the banks to take adequate measures against a system they know to be broken. The film anticipates another downturn, too, and hits a heavy note in its final moments. The cynical humour of the film feels fair in the face of history repeating itself.

The cast matches the quality of script, as the players of The Big Short have a lot of fun lampooning the one percent with a nod and wink to the camera as the film frequently breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. Canada's Ryan Gosling serves this aspect of the film especially well in his performance as a douchey banker who narrates the story and loves, loves, loves money. Carell, similarly, gives one of his fuller and funnier performances as Baum, a mad prophet of reason who’s part whistleblower and part Howard Beale. Bale, on the other hand, doesn’t fare as well in his manic and self-aware performance. He overdoes it and often overwhelms the film, but not with the same enjoyably over the top gusto that the rest of the ensemble creates in harmony.

The Big Short has a top-notch script and cast, so it might be masterwork as, say, a stage play, but McKay’s direction struggles to elevate the material outside of the film’s playful punches through the fourth wall. The unattractive cinematography, for one, attempts the OCD sprightliness of a David O. Russell film with frequent pans and swishes, while the editing often feels excessive, as it there are superfluous cuts and inserts in search of style. More editing on the running time might instead work in the film’s favour, as The Big Short runs too long and proves exhausting. It’s nevertheless a thoroughly enjoyable and incisive marathon, and McKay’s portrait of the self-serving farce of American economics doesn’t cut the material short. The Big Short is a big, bold laugh at a broken dream.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Big Short is now playing in theatres.