In 2013, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio teamed up for a film that would show the seedy underbelly of the world of stockbrokers in their masterpiece dark comedy, The Wolf of Wall Street. It was a roaring success, and it was both an outrageously entertaining but also very informative and fascinating film – and it was absolutely true. There are very few stories as unique as that of Jordan Belfort, but it was bound to happen that someone would attempt to replicate the success of that film. One such film is The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book about the housing market crash in 2008, and the individuals centered around the various scandals that enveloped the housing crisis. In short, it doesn’t come close to replicating the success of The Wolf of Wall Street, but it is not without merits.
The name Adam McKay may ring a bell – he is the man responsible for bringing Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (starring Will Ferrell, along with its sequel that also starred Will Ferrell) and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (starring Will Ferrell) to our screens, along with other broad comedic films such as The Other Guys (starring Will Ferrell) and Step Brothers (starring John C. Reilly…and Will Ferrell). There is absolutely nothing wrong with a director having a particular actor they love to collaborate with (Paul Feig does it wonderfully with Melissa McCarthy), but it was starting to seem like Adam McKay was a man destined to have his career be a series of broad comedies starring Will Ferrell. I am sure I am not alone when I say that when I heard that McKay was planning to direct a more serious film, about the housing crisis in 2008, I didn’t think it was true.
However, time showed us that he was serious about making this film, and an actually very serious film in itself (and surprisingly, not starring Will Ferrell). It was a truly very risky choice to make, but it was clear that McKay was passionate about the source material (and there are rumors that Paramount only allowed McKay to make this film if he directed the ill-fated Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), and honestly, who wouldn’t be interested in this material? If there is one thing that The Wolf of Wall Street taught us is that the people that handle our money can sometimes be the most insane, irresponsible people, and The Big Short does a great job of transferring the real backstage drama from the world of finance into a very funny but also truly honest stage and exploring one of the most incredibly volatile periods in economic history and presenting it to a wider audience, while still being absolutely entertaining and very accessible.
The Big Short centers around three groups of people that realize that the entire housing market is unstable and destined to crash. Using their financial knowledge and some very convincing trickery, they manage to bet against the entire housing market, hoping to become rich off of it. The first person to realize the imminent collapse is Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric medical doctor who now manages a hedge fund. The second person to be alerted to this is another hedge fund manager, Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who works with his associates and vulgar trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) to bet against the housing market themselves. The third to become aware of the collapse are young traders Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), who are on the search for security in the financial world, and the imminent collapse offers them the chance to make some serious money, but in order to do so, they enlist the help of retired trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). These three storylines almost never cross each other, even if they are all aimed towards the same outcome, and all run relatively parrallel to each other.
Like The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short has a large ensemble cast of established stars and character actors, along with some truly memorable cameos. Unlike The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short does not have a particular leading character, with most of the main roles serving as the protagonists of the story. The biggest and most traditional lead is perhaps Steve Carell, who plays Mark Baum, the volatile and short-tempered hedge fund manager who stumbles onto the imminent crisis by complete accident. I had several problems with Carell’s performance, the first being this – he was too angry. I do think Carell’s played the most humorless character of the year (and consider that Géza Röhrig plays a man in a concentration camp during the Holocaust in Son of Saul), and he is just utterly unlikable. In a film where we are supposed to hope these characters succeed in their criminal activity, we hope that Baum and his team fail, just because of how miserable Carell’s performance is (and his wig is absolutely horrendous as well, but I digress). Carell is a very funny actor, and he’s tried drama very well before (such as his performance in the remarkable Little Miss Sunshine), but here, I was just unimpressed with him. Christian Bale is an actor who is perpetually very intense and serious, so I was surprised to see him in David O. Russell’s crime comedy. American Hustle. However, that could just be loyalty towards the man that boosted his career with The Fighter. I was more surprised to see him sign up for The Big Short, in a relatively unlikable and thankless role as Burry. Bale’s performance was essentially him walking around barefoot and listening to loud music in his office. That is pretty much an accurate summary of his performance. Bale has shown his talent many times before, but he has also shown his ability to overact. I am honestly not sure under which category his performance in The Big Short falls. One positive thing about his performance is that he is far better than Carell, and most certainly a lot more likable, but I am confused as to why he signed up for this. I have a sneaking suspicion it is because he wanted to be able to say he starred in a film by Adam McKay. The same goes for Ryan Gosling (who was actually really good in The Big Short) and Brad Pitt, who give smaller but far better performances than Carell and Bale, albeit very short performances that could’ve been expanded more on. Finn Wittrock is fantastic as the young trader, and I do think he has a great career ahead of him. The cast is not used as well as it should have been, and with so many talented people in your cast, it seems a great pity not to utilize them well.
The Big Short isn’t a bad film, and it is actually a surprisingly effective look at the housing crisis. Adam McKay, as I said before, clearly has a lot of passion for this subject matter, and it shows – his screenplay is dazzling and very unique – the interludes where celebrities such as Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez break the fourth wall to explain complicated financial and business terms, was a very nice touch and something that I admired about this film – McKay didn’t dumb down the script, but he also didn’t alienate the audience that might not know what a particular term or concept is. He made a very funny but also very intelligent film about a horrendous financial crisis, and it takes a very unique approach to the material, because the book this film is based on is as serious as anything could possibly be – but the decision to make this a comedy was one that needed to be made – there is not a chance the audience would’ve been as captivated as they were if this film was serious. The characters in this story are oddballs, and the events are outrageous. A comedy was the only way to tell this story and do it justice. The world of finance and banking is not as boring and dull as we think it is – in fact, it is quite the contrary – it is a vicious, malicious world filled with colorful characters and outrageous actions, which is a far-cry from the perception many people have, the idea that people in the finance industry have it all together, when they are the ones that may very well be the most mad out of them all.
The Big Short is a good film, but not a great one. The cast is great, but they are underused. The approach to the story – making it a comedy – was a great idea, but it was inconsistent in its tone throughout. The writing is fantastic, but it relies too heavily on technical jargon, and even though McKay does make an effort to explain these concepts to the audience, there is still a level of complexity to it, but that is what happens when you make a film about the housing crisis. Overall, The Big Short is a good film that is worth checking out because of its all-star cast and its very intelligent story. It is an essential film, one that tells of a true life event that had effects on all of us in some way. It is important that the general public knows exactly what is going on behind closed doors, and The Big Short exposes just one of those isolated incidents, many of which happen everyday without us knowing. It is a thought-provoking and often very funny film, but it is most definitely flawed, which makes me wish a better film were made. Otherwise, it isn’t bad by any means, just not as great as it could’ve been.