Arts Review, Movies
Adam McKay, director and co-script w/Charles Randolph; based on the book by Michael Lewis
Starring: Christian Bale (Michael Burry), Steve Carell (Mark Baum-based on Steve Eisman), Ryan Gosling (Jared Vennet—based on Greg Lippman), Melissa Leo (Georgia Hale), Hamish Linklater (Porter Collins), John Magaro (Charlie Geller—based on Charlie Ledley), Rafe Spall (Danny Moses), Marisa Tomei (Cynthia Baum—based on Valerie Feigen), Brad Pitt (Ben Rickert—based on Ben Hockett), Finn Wittrock (Jamie Shipley—based on Jamie Mai)
Adam McKay has done the impossible with The Big Short: he’s beaten Martin Scorsese at his own game. He has created a truly outrageous comedy about the financial devastation that occurred in 2008. With a great cast including Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, he’s succeeded in making economics comprehensible—and actually funny. The Big Short is a satire, which bears comparison to Dr. Strangelove—high praise indeed.
Remember how disappointed you were watching The Wolf of Wall Street wondering why stock market fraud had to be handled in such a hyperbolic way? Obviously, Scorsese was trying to be comical but it rarely worked. And after a while, it was unclear whether we were supposed to be rooting for Scorsese’s main man, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, or condemning him for exploiting so many people.
McKay, whose previous credits include Anchorman and Talladega Nights, realised that you could play the absurdity of the housing bubble crisis of 2008 comically while still holding the reins on a story that is inherently tragic. He doesn’t invest in one character, which allows us to concentrate on the main game, which is how the American (and international) public lost billions because of a Ponzi scheme that caused real estate to become so fake that it virtually ceased to exist.
To explain some of the arcane points of the huge financial crisis, which nearly destroyed Wall Street in 2008, McKay brings in celebrities like chef Anthony Bourdain, Margot Robbie (who starred in Wolf of Wall Street) and pop star Selena Gomez to explain CDOs (collaterized debt obligation), securities backed by mortgages and, indeed, the whole subprime mortgage crisis.
Heady stuff—but McKay makes it work with analogies to food, card games and—when it doubt—having a glamorous star talk to us in a bubble bath.
It certainly didn’t hurt McKay that his tragic-comedy is loosely based on a non-fiction bestseller by Michael Lewis, who also penned Moneyball. It helped McKay to get the economics right and provided him with a cast of crazy characters who are stranger than fiction.
There’s Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an inarticulate drummer and surfer, who is a medical doctor and a financial genius capable of understanding the flaws in the mortgage system years before anyone else. And Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a guilt-ridden hedge fund operator who hates the injustices in the world but feels compelled to take advantage of them. And Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who works for the Deutsche Band but spills the beans—once he figures them out—to Baum, for (what else?) more money.
Not burdened by having to carry the whole film, each of these performers is stellar. So is Brad Pitt, in a dialed down role as a former trader who gets back in the game to help a couple of young financial operators (played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) and, incidentally, make a profit, too.
It’s Pitt who gets to deliver the film’s defining lines. When his two acolytes start high fiving each other because the bubble is going to burst making them millions, he points out that tens of thousands of innocent people are going to be wiped out because traders had become too greedy.
And that’s the moment when the laughter stops. The Big Short is a brilliant film, certainly one of the year’s best.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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