“Of course a drop in the housing market would bring the whole thing crashing down like a Jenga tower. It was obvious. We knew it all along. In fact, almost none of us did…
…Certainly not the government officials and banking executives who remain at liberty and in positions of power to this day.”, A.O. Scott, “Review: In ‘The Big Short,’ Economic Collapse for Fun and Profit”, The New York Times, December 10, 2015
Review: In ‘The Big Short,’ Economic Collapse for Fun and Profit
The Big Short
By A. O. SCOTT
From left, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Steve Carell and Rafe Spall, with Ryan Gosling in the background, in “The Big Short,” directed by Adam McKay. Credit Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures
A true crime story and a madcap comedy, a heist movie and a scalding polemic, “The Big Short” will affirm your deepest cynicism about Wall Street while simultaneously restoring your faith in Hollywood.
Written by Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Anchorman 2”) and Charles Randolph, and directed by Mr. McKay and released in the midst of “Star Wars” advent season, the film sets itself a very tall order. It wants not only to explain the financial crisis of 2008 — following the outline of Michael Lewis’s best-selling nonfiction book — but also to make the dry, complex abstractions of high finance exciting and fun. Celebrity cameos (from Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez, among others) are turned into miniseminars on the finer points of credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. The story swerves and swings from executive suites and conference rooms to hectic Manhattan streets and desolate Florida subdivisions. The performances, the script and the camera itself seem to be running on a cocktail of Red Bull, Adderall and mescaline.
It’s a trip. At the end, your brain hurts and you feel sick to your stomach, as can happen when too much adrenaline has been surging through your system. But that queasy, empty feeling is the point: This is a terrifically enjoyable movie that leaves you in a state of rage, nausea and despair. What is to be done with those feelings is the great moral and political challenge Mr. McKay has set for the audience, which I hope is vast and various. I don’t condone mob violence and I’m supposed to keep my political opinions to myself, but as soon as I’m done writing this I’m going out to the garage to look for a pitchfork.
“The Big Short” is not the first movie to reckon with the fraud and stupidity that brought the world economy to the brink of collapse not so long ago and that continues to exact a heavy toll in social misery and political alienation. Charles Ferguson’s 2010 documentary “Inside Job” remains the definitive cinematic account of the regulatory, intellectual and ethical failures that led to the crisis. J .C. Chandor’s superb “Margin Call” (2011) depicts the minute-by-minute bursting of the mortgage-backed-securities bubble, while Ramin Bahrani’s excellent “99 Homes,” released this year, dramatizes some of the long-term consequences of the crash. But rather than rehash familiar ground, “The Big Short” achieves a fresh and brilliant synthesis of knowing insiderism and populist incitement.
Back in 2010, when Mr. Lewis’s book came out, it was as ubiquitous an accessory for business-class airline passengers as the “Twilight” novels were for adolescent girls. Part of the book’s appeal — a side effect of its author’s smart, breezy, plain-spoken style — was that it offered readers the illusion of retroactive prescience. You could read about the insanity of bundling subprime mortgages into highly rated investment products and think: Well, of course that was a recipe for disaster. Of course a drop in the housing market would bring the whole thing crashing down like a Jenga tower. It was obvious. We knew it all along.
In fact, almost none of us did. Certainly not the government officials and banking executives who remain at liberty and in positions of power to this day. Or if they did know, they didn’t care. The truth about what the banks and their enablers were doing was obvious only to a handful of people (one of whom, in the movie, is shown demonstrating the Jenga tower metaphor I just borrowed). Mr. McKay, with a comedy writer’s eye for archetypes, sorts them into an amusing array of strongly defined characters.
There is the antisocial numbers guy, Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a fund manager who sits in his office wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops, blasting death metal, beating on his desk with drumsticks and betting his client’s money on financial catastrophe. There is the righteously angry crusader, Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a disaffected Wall Streeter who sees a similar wager as the perfect expression of his contempt for the big banks (including the one he technically works for). And there are the young indie upstarts, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), college buddies whose “garage band” fund was started with their own money and who want to show that they can play in the big leagues.
Linking these motley iconoclasts, and serving as our guide to the apocalypse unfolding around them, is Jared Vennett, a silky cynic played, with all the seductiveness that has made him a beloved Internetmeme, by Ryan Gosling. From time to time Vennett will cast his baby blues toward the camera to tell us that something didn’t really happen in quite the way it’s being shown — or that, incredibly enough, it actually did. His slick, winking wit inoculates the movie against excessive earnestness and allows us to think that “The Big Short” is going to be one of those boisterous, amoral rich-guy movies, complete with geysers of Champagne and visits to strip clubs.
Which, to some extent, it is. Mr. McKay is not above using paid-for female nudity as a signifier of capitalist excess, nor acknowledging, more generally, the hedonistic aspects of greed. He is a naturally exuberant director, and his antic energy matches the rhythms of the story. The teams conspiring to short the market are impossible not to root for, and the work of the movie’s sprawling ensemble is never less than delightful. (This is the place to appreciate the contributions of Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong, who play Baum’s baffled minions; Adepero Oduye, who plays his liaison to the bank that houses his fund; and Marisa Tomei, who as Baum’s wife is like the only civilian in a combat picture.)
But when we root for Baum and Burry to be proven right, for Shipley and Geller to hit pay dirt and for Vennett to earn the right to be smug in perpetuity, we are also hoping for ruin to be visited on millions of ordinary people. Houses, nest eggs, jobs and lives will be lost. Brad Pitt, in a gravelly turn as Ben Rickert, Shipley and Geller’s paranoid guru, makes this point explicitly when he scolds his protégés for celebrating their good fortune. He says what needs to be said, but the achievement of “The Big Short” is that Mr. McKay doesn’t only underline the moral of the story in dialogue. The film’s final images, its abrupt shift in tone from exhilaration to exhaustion, its suddenly downbeat music (by Nicholas Britell) all combine to trigger a climactic wave of almost unbearable disgust.
Because, as we know — and as we can stand, from time to time, to be reminded — there is no happy ending to this story, no punishment for the crime. A movie is unlikely to change that, and “The Big Short,” in many ways a startlingly ambitious film, is modest about what it can do. It offers no solutions, and no comfort. The best it can do is put down a marker.
“The Big Short” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes.
A version of this review appears in print on December 11, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Economic Collapse, for Fun and Profit