Director Adam McKay’s playful film about Wall Street sharks who saw the GFC coming and endeavoured to profit from it, The Big Short, has been billed as a comedy. What that really means in this instance is that the film maintains a certain kind of distance.
Not so much “comedy equals tragedy plus time,” because the financial crisis will never be in principle amusing. Rather that the relationship between viewers and the grim nature of content they are absorbing is being constantly dislocated by McKay, whose background in more overtly funny material (including the Anchorman movies and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby) helps him pry open a potentially dry subject using an arsenal of narrative techniques.
A conga line of Hollywood star power — including Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei and Christian Bale — line up to help the medicine go down. Some of them break the fourth wall. All pitch at different and slightly quirky levels, as if nobody (including McKay) quite knew which style would suit the material best.
Gosling plays trader Jared Vennett. He is also the narrator, kicking the film off with a potted history of US bankers delivered direct-to-cam. “In the late ’70s banking wasn’t a job you went into to make large sums of money. It was a fucking snooze filled with losers,” he says, tracing how bankers transitioned from the country club to the strip club and America barely noticed the sleazy bastards before it all came crashing down.
The Big Short (adapted from author Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book) is a sort of fiscally-oriented Short Cuts, with intersecting plotlines and a broadly cohesive structure. Bale plays Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager who seems more like a creature from Silicon Valley: he dresses in t-shirts, listens to brutal heavy metal music and uses the squillions at his disposal to boldly bet against the real estate market.
Brad Pitt is a new age banker lured out of retirement by a couple of young upstarts (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who get wind of Burry’s prediction of impending doom. Steve Carrell plays another hedge fund manager, Mark Baum, the most interesting character and the most interesting performance (how odd the Academy chose to nominate Bale for Best Supporting Actor).
The comedian, who emotes from underneath a distracting headpiece and again (after the excellent Foxcatcher) seems more naturally disposed to drama, walks around in a bad funk. The misanthropic glaze on his face is well-suited to a character who wants to make moral decisions but instead chooses logical ones; the film in no short supply of examples to highlight the difference.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy demonstrated wonderful things that can happen when a director assigns so much trust in a star they consume a film’s fabric, the very body of it an extension of the performer’s own funny bone. Not so in The Big Short, which has zero faith in any of its slimebag subjects to steer it — thus no protagonist.
This scattershot regard to the humans at the heart of it is a part of McKay’s keep-it-moving, everything and the kitchen sink approach, which prioritises making the story accessible over making the story personal. He seems to see himself as the cool lecturer, throwing the textbook out the room in favour of kooky ways to communicate complex ideas.
The Big Short hits peak explain-y with a triple whammy of analogies that, in any other film, would probably deal it a credibility deathblow. Ryan Gosling explains the market to other characters — really, the audience — using a round of Jenga (spoiler: the pieces come tumbling down). He throws to celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who compares fish to finance, saying CDOs are like seafood stews. Then Carrell chips in: “So mortgage bonds are dog shit wrapped in cat shit”.
Anyone else want to contribute a fun metaphor? They certainly keep coming. It’s a patchy ride, at times close in tone to an elongated Funny or Die routine, but there’s no doubt the film is a commendable achievement. Or that it is successful in its primary goal: to make a story about the GFC entertaining.