McKay’s Okay. On paper, dropping absurd anchormen, man-child stepbrothers, and nutty Nascar drivers for a dramatic delve into the housing bond market crash of 2008 doesn’t sound like the sexiest transition for Will Ferrell-regular Adam McKay. Yet, when a film casts Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, it’s difficult to deem it anything but sexy. Oh, sorry Steve Carell. On screen, however, the characters in McKay’s The Big Short are nothing close to attractive—bohemian bankers, with social struggles, regretful careers, suave vulgarity, and downright economic anxiety. Each of the lead quartettes possesses one of each of these flaws, as their storylines run parallel with one another rather than intersecting—a disappointment considering a caliber of talent. McKay’s script, though, co-written with Charles Randolph, uses the ensemble economically to provide us with several distinct perspectives on the crash from the four outliers who cashed in on Wall Street’s ignorance.
Bullheaded. ’Ignorance’ would be putting the film’s judgement of bankers rather lightly. Bale’s Michael Burry, a Scion Capital hedge fund manager, is perhaps the most explicit embodiment of this. With his one glass one and discount haircut, the offbeat investor confronts laughing bank representatives as well as his own furious bosses who don’t believe in his betting of millions against the seemingly sturdy housing market. Carell’s Mark Baum evokes the same anger, perhaps a tad too on the nose in his sole responsibility of carrying the film into its brief morally conflicted stints off Wall Street, as Baum’s idealist leadership of his associates work directly opposite to Jarred Vennett (Gosling), a brash banking bro, who just so happens to narrate but states “I never said I was the hero of this story.” Though the most direct shot to the suits comes in the form of celebrities such as Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and Anthony Bourdain explaining terms such as “sub-prime,” and “synthetic collateralized debt obligation” in plain English. Be it at a casino, in a kitchen or in a bubble bath drinking champagne, McKay’s tastefully infuses comedy with a purpose to take a jab at the jargon that confused the average buyer into spurring the crash in the first place.
No Wolves Here. Conversely, to the probable disdain of the average McKay-goer, the majority of the dialogue here consists of said jargon. Remember that one scene from Wolf of Wall Street? The one where Leo’s character explains the workings of an I.P.O., speaking directly at you? But then he says something like “I know you’re not following, but that’s okay. The real question is was all the legal? Absolutely f—king not.” Well, where Scorsese let viewers off the hook, McKay and Randolph use the confusion of the lingo to the film’s thematic advantage: you’re put into the position of the little guys, and, boy, is it infuriating to watch these suited pricks in their towering offices. To be fair, The Big Short isn’t as adrenaline-fuelled as Wolf, nor is it as funny, but it’s more voracious as it’s unrelenting focus on a conceptually dull subject lends itself to be. To thank are a constantly accelerating edits and camera work—flashing topical images, resting on Mark Twain and Haruki Murakami quotes, utilizing documentary-esque zooms, focus adjustments, and close-up pans and tilts—it as if you’re planted on Wall Street during rush hour for the next 130 minutes. It’s that seducing. And it’s that relentless.
Great Gosling! As equally as responsible are the handful of motivated performances from the lead quartette mentioned above. Although Bale has the most mosaic—laughing and stuttering mid-speech, relaxing to heavy metal riffs—Carrell the most conflicted, and Pitt the most…um, there’s not a whole lot to say here… Gosling is the highlight and worth the price of admission alone. Returning from his two-year “break,” the actor’s lively crudity is a fresh and welcome direction for the dark and mysterious type he established in working alongside Nicholas Winding Refn. His eyes still hold this solemnity, and his voice a softness—but the way in which he talks with a sleek, surly competence and micromanages his sorry assistant Chris (Jeffry Griffen) is such a peculiar and entertaining sight, you won’t even have to know, more or less care, what’s going on.