Prior to 2015, writer/director Adam McKay’s film output consisted solely of comedic collaborations with Will Ferrell, beginning with 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. Though he’s shown signs of promise, it took a few films away from Ferrell to get a sense of what he can do as a creative talent. First came Ant-Man, which McKay rewrote with Paul Rudd just before production on the film started. Now comes The Big Short, which tackles the 2008 financial collapse by merging McKay’s comic sensibilities with a righteous sense of outrage.
Adapted from the nonfiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis, The Big Short follows various characters who have realized that a financial crisis is looming, and are attempting to “short” the housing market by betting – and betting big – on the imminent collapse. Here, it starts with Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a former doctor now working as a hedge fund manager, who notices the bubble through data on mortgage packages he’s studying. He quickly begins to convince banks to let him set up investments that will only pay off for him if a slew of bad loans default.
Burry’s actions make waves on Wall Street – largely as a joke. It’s not a joke to Mark Baum (Steve Carell), whose work in the financial sector is seemingly at odds with his obvious distrust of the big banks. He teams up with Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a trader who personifies many of the worst stereotypes of those on Wall Street, to create a shorting scheme of their own. Elsewhere, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), a pair of up-and-coming investors, also catch wind of the looming bubble, and convince neighbor Ben Rickett (Brad Pitt), a former Wall Street investor who’s since made an effort to live as far off the grid as possible, to help them make their own investments.
Knowing, of course, that the bubble does eventually pop doesn’t mean things move quickly. Instead, the film looks at how the housing bubble grew, why it was doomed to burst, and just how long it took for that burst to finally happen. This period includes Baum and his small team examining Burry’s theories by looking at different markets. Repeatedly, they come across people all too willing to acknowledge the ways they’ve set up others in order to make money off of them, leading to a series of darkly comic exchanges.
Even with the comedic tone, McKay is clearly trying to do something different from his usual work here. Visually, the film resembles a drama in its handheld camera work and use of freeze frames. He cuts the style, though, with the occasional break in format. Gosling, most notably, frequently breaks the fourth wall. Other times, the film will cut away to celebrities doing something to grab the audience’s attention as they explain various financial processes. It’s an interesting way to inject the information into the film without it coming across as an information dump from the mouths of the film’s central characters.
Those characters, it should be noted, share the same basic connection, but rarely interact; only Carell and Gosling share any notable scenes. While sharing more scenes may have required significant narrative adjustments that would have weakened the film, it’s still surprising to see the larger ensemble split amongst their own storylines so rigidly. Beyond that, though, McKay’s film largely works as intended: it entertains, while drawing attention (and even outrage) to the ways the financial sector disrupted the economy. In the film’s final moments, it even ramps up the outrage by suggesting that Wall Street didn’t learn any lessons from 2008, throwing into sharp relief the motivation for making this film this way.