The Big Short: A Movie Review
Have you ever seen a movie that just works? Whether it’s an A list release or a straight-to-video B movie? There’s something that just makes certain films stand out, regardless of budget or topic, and that is passion. When a filmmaker has a labor of love, much like The Big Short, it almost jumps off the screen, and you can practically feel their passion.
For example take Sam Raimi’s classic the Evil Dead: shot for $375,000 budget with no “professional” actors, Evil Dead is still widely loved 35 years later, and has spawned TV shows, plays, and comics. Then there’s Spiderman 3, shot for 258 million and was such a stinker that they had to reboot the series. Now, Raimi wasn’t any less talented when he made Spiderman 3… in fact one would think he has had time to hone his craft and is more developed and skilled as a director.
So why was Evil Dead more “successful” than Spiderman 3?
This is why when I saw Adam McKay penned to this film, I wasn’t sure what to think. There’s no doubt that McKay is incredibly gifted, he has had huge successes such as Stepbrothers, Talladega Nights and Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy under his belt. not to mention all the shorts/TV series McKay has worked on. McKay is certainly quite accomplished in making us laugh.
But a Drama? It just doesn’t seem his style.
The Big Short is McKay’s first stab at a dramatic film (perhaps a Dramedy is a better way of describing it). I honestly was a bit skeptical. It’s not that other writers and directors haven’t been able to make that leap, it’s just that all of his prior offerings were charmingly absurd. However, the film intrigued me with it’s high energy delivery. I am a firm believer that talent and passion wins at the end of the day, so I jumped aboard hoping for the best.
Oscar Nominee The Big Short
The Big Short is set just a little before the financial crisis of 2007 -2010(ish) when the credit and housing markets took us all for the proverbial ride. Life was good for money movers and many lived in excess. Then someone actually did the math, and realized that not only was this not sustainable, but corrupt. A lot of “regular” folks got screwed and the elite profited. Many likened this global crisis to the Great Depression of the 1930’s.
I bought my first home in 2009 and you can take a guess where my opinion falls on this discussion.
The Big Short is adapted from the 2010 novel The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine By Michael Lewis of Moneyball and The Blindside fame. Both of which made their way to the silver screen.
The Big Short begins with a quote from Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” We are guided through the world of finance by an unreliable (at best) narrator who happens to be telling the truth, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). Based on a real person (Greg Lippmann). Vennett breaks the fourth wall constantly to talk to the audience, as do many of the other characters.
The Fourth Wall
Breaking the fourth wall has been trendy as of late (Re: Deadpool) and McKay does not shy away from that tactic here. It did work in the Big Short up to a point… but it still came across as somewhat lazy. Here’s Adam McKay’s take on it:
I think what we did with breaking the fourth wall was inspired by Lewis’ book. If you look at his book, he does a lot of footnotes where he says, “You’re still keeping up with what I’m saying. You deserve a gold star.” He kind of talks to the reader a little bit. That inspired us doing that in the movie. I just felt like the movies had to be inclusive. One of the ways the banks get away with ripping us off is by making us feel stupid or bored by financial talk. I wanted to open it up in a fun way because, once you get it, it’s a really energetic, exciting world. I figure if a college dropout who directed Step Brothers can understand it, the rest of the audience can. That was my operating premise. This isn’t that hard—it’s just moving dead money around and giving it weird names.
OK. We aren’t all mentally deficient. I agree that the topic isn’t that hard so why use (or overuse) a cheap narrative tricks? It wasn’t poorly done, but still I felt that I was being talked down to. Especially when you get multiple characters repeating the same lesson over and over to us. While I am not mad about watching Margie in a bathtub talk about credit default swaps, it kinda felt condescending the third time around.
The fourth wall when done right can be fun; we all love interacting with our media, and McKay does an okay job navigating it here. His logic for using it makes sense, but if you have a shred of intelligence you may grimace when characters keep turning to the camera and basically saying “hey, did you get that?”
The cast led by Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt engages the audience through what can be considered dry economic verbiage. These guys are mostly more in line with the slick fast talkers in Mad Men than monetary drones slaving over calculators. McKay drives the point home that the crooks are still among us. The entire cast is superb, and deftly navigating their roles.
Steve Carrel stands out as Mark Baum , a money manager who despises the greed and unethical practices of Wall Street but is having a rough patch in his personal life, who then meets Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) , a trader who convinces him that they can make a fortune shorting the banks’ mortgage bonds.
Then there’s Bale’s performance… the man obsessively scrutinizes every performance he gives. He may be my favorite actor ever. Bale nails it here as he plays Burry with a slight exaggeration. He perfects Burry’s compulsions and mannerisms, showing us a manic and slightly unhinged financial guru.
McKay tried to play fast and loose with this film, blending comedy and drama, and The Big Short doesn’t completely succeed on either of these levels. McKay does manage to instill his passion about economic dishonesty, and the BS we went through in the previous decade. The Big Short manages to be a fun film with strong performances that tries to inform the viewer about the shady business that went down, while mostly avoiding coming off as preachy or patronizing.