A Review of Adam McKay’s The Big Short: Frenetic, Angry, and Less than Great

the big short

Film: The Big Short
Director: Adam McKay
Primary Cast: Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Jeremy Strong, Marisa Tomei, Adepero Oduye
US Release Date: 23 December 2015

The Big Short begins in 2005 and ends with the financial crisis that started in late 2007. Over the course of its 130-minute running time, the film simultaneously tells a trio of loosely connected stories. One of these stories features Michael Burry (Bale), an unorthodox hedge fund manager, who begins buying credit default swaps when he discovers that the housing market is unstable. The second of these stories centers on investor Jared Vennet (Gosling), pessimistic financial expert Mark Baum (Carell), and those who work for Baum at his fund. The third and final story follows two young investors, Charlie Geller (Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Wittrock), who work with retired banker Ben Rickert (Pitt) to make money on the financial collapse.
Read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.

Before The Big Short, the only Adam McKay films I had seen were Anchorman and Anchorman 2, which is to say that I had very little idea of what to expect when I headed to the theater. I knew the film was a hybrid biodrama/dark comedy of sorts, I knew it was about the financial crisis, and I knew who was in it; what I did not know was how enraged, irreverent, and frenetic it would be.

As much as I admire the film’s combination of biting wit and stylistic daring, not all of The Big Short’s risks pay off. Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s 2010 novel on the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis is a messy, angry, and unorthodox film that—though interesting enough to warrant a single viewing—does not have much staying power at the end of the day.

The Big Short is not a bad film by any means, but for all it’s screaming, it does not make as much of an impact as it could have. There are pockets of potential all throughout the film, but a number of them are left unexplored. And while I understand that the messy and somewhat confused nature of the film may be meant to echo the chaos of the situations and systems that it depicts, that does not change the fact that The Big Short remains too unpolished to feel truly successful. Given just how much I enjoy Gosling, Carell, and getting angry at rich people, I expected a bit more. McKay’s latest it good enough, but it’s not great, which is too bad.

Like Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, one of The Big Short’s aims is to ask viewers to confront the cost of the recent financial crisis, but that is where the similarities between the two films end. Unlike 99 Homes, The Big Short spends much more time exposing the system of fraud and confusion beneath the crisis than it does trying to tug at its viewer’s heart strings. Where 99 Homes is heartfelt and sad, The Big Short is infuriated and cynical, and McKay’s irreverent and anger-driven comedy proves to be far more appropriate for the subject matter than Bahrani’s sentimentality. In fact, perhaps the best thing about The Big Short is the way it uses its combination of high energy and scathing comedy to make its rage palpable.

The film is also well-acted by a sizeable ensemble cast, and Gosling, Bale, and Carell are all solid in its lead roles. Still, none of the performances in the film really stand out as noteworthy, and as much personality as some of the characters have, none of them are particularly memorable once the credits roll.

Lack of memorability aside, it is worth noting that for the most part, the main characters in The Big Short are distinct from the key figures in The Wolf of Wall Street—a film which, for obvious reasons, The Big Short seems to be a relative of. Furthermore, McKay addresses the fact that his film will undoubtedly be compared to Scorsese’s by featuring Margot Robbie in the first of The Big Short’s numerous fourth-wall-breaking “educational” cameos. The Big Short isn’t as well-made or as worthwhile as The Wolf of Wall Street, but it does deserve to be measured according to its own merits, and the Margot Robbie scene is McKay’s way of making it very clear that he doesn’t give a shit about those who might think otherwise.

But back to those fourth-wall-breaking cameos. There are three in total in the film, and each of them is presented under the pretense of educating viewers about some aspect of the financial system. And while the cameos do help viewers understand certain more technical terms used in the film, that is hardly their primary function, and it remains up to viewers to decide how effective they are—in my opinion, all but the first featuring Robbie should have been edited out. The Big Short’s goal is not to inform—although it does pretend to; rather, the film aims to infuriate, to disturb, and to amuse. For the most part, it does all three, but not quite as intensely or as consistently as I would have liked, and the later cameos only serve to distract from the rest of the film.  

Regardless of how successful certain aspects of the film are, The Big Short remains daring in its own way. Yes, it’s full of almost nothing but white men and yes, it adapts its story from an already successful novel, but McKay’s latest is far from ordinary. Like the financial system at its heart, The Big Short repeatedly embraces confusion and artifice in the name of its larger goals. The film isn’t afraid to occupy multiple—and even contradictory—places simultaneously, and it all makes for one wild ride. Not every second of that ride is enjoyable (for instance, the subplot concerning Baum’s brother never really fits into the rest of the film), but it makes for an interesting experience all the same.
Pre-order The Big Short.

Until Next Time
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