‘The Big Short’ Is High Risk, Yields High Rewards

“So, who was that movie for?” my friend asked on the way out of our screening of The Big Short, and I gotta tell you, I didn’t really have an answer for him. After all, the main audience for a deep dive into the financial circumstances that prompted the global economic meltdown of 2007-2008 probably already knows much of the information it contains; they’ve probably read the Michael Lewis book it’s based on, or Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia (which came out around the same time), or they listened to This American Life’s “Giant Pool of Money” episode, or they’ve seen Inside Job or Capitalism: A Love Story or any of the other documentaries about the subject. The Big Short is a movie that functions essentially, and often quite cleverly, as an explainer — but aren’t the people who would see a movie like this probably up to speed? Or is there a robust audience of Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt fans who want to learn more about the financial crisis?

I suppose we’ll find out. The film’s primary commercial influence seems to be The Wolf of Wall Street — whose co-star Margot Robbie even makes a brief appearance as herself to explain what CDOs are. She does it in a bubble bath, to help make such dry financial terminology sexy; elsewhere, Anthony Bourdain shows up to make a cooking analogy, while Selena Gomez hits the tables in Vegas alongside an economics expert. In those scenes, co-writer/director Adam McKay is displaying the irreverence of his previous full-on comedies (like Anchorman and The Other Guys), while confronting the biggest obstacle to movies about The Street: nobody understands how it works. “Does it make you feel bored or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to,” narrator Jared Vennett (Gosling) muses at one point; at another, guessing at his audience’s comprehension of the crisis, he shrugs, “You’ve got a sound bite you repeat so you don’t sound stupid, but c’mon.”

Christian Bale in "The Big Short"

That knowing wink is all over the movie, which is an unlikely but oddly effective mixture of dark comedy, character study, based-on-a-true-story drama, rabble-rousing, and detective story. That last element is the most surprising, and the most ingenious; as part of the challenge of explanation, money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team poke around the housing market, piecing together the elements of the credit default swaps Vennett is trying to sell him. They run the numbers, they dive into the documents, they visit an all-but-abandoned Florida housing development. And even they’re shocked by what they discover.

They’re not the only ones with an eye on the gathering storm. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is there before anybody, locking himself in his office at Scion Capital, convincing the banks to create these bets for him, expressing concerns over Goldman-Sachs’ “solvency issues” when it comes time to cash in his chips. Ben Rickert (Pitt) is out of the finance game, but gets back in to help a couple of young protégés. Some of their paths collide directly; others, not until the bubble bursts.

Brad Pitt in "The Big Short"

Taken as a whole, it’s a fascinating (and risky) group of people to center a movie on: they’re all cynical, self-righteous, and corrupt, all at once. You’re not “rooting” for them, not exactly — but you’re not rooting against them, either, as they’re all acutely aware of how rigged the game is, and not lacking in colorful descriptions for it. Like Steve Jobs, this is a movie in love with the sound of shoptalk, its characters yelling, joking, prodding, and chattering their way around anyone who can’t keep up. The cast revels in the opportunities such a script presents; all come off well, though Carell and Bale stand out, the former as a braying bullshit-caller who never met a scene he wouldn’t make, the latter in a fiercely physical performance as the alienated soothsayer, playing most of his scenes alone, and rivetingly.

McKay, meanwhile, proves himself an adroit chronicler of more serious stories than Step Brothers. He’s got an admirable sense of play, even in straightforward scenes, lingering in pauses, finding unexpected juxtapositions, parachuting out of scenes mid-sentence or even mid-word, once he’s gotten what he needs out of them. And, yes, he still gets plenty of laughs. (There’s a cut to Steve Carell saying a single line on the phone that gets one of the biggest laughs I’ve heard in a theater recently, through the sheer force of the edit.) While the messaging of the third act could be a bit less explicit, it’s forgivable; it’s the best he can provide in lieu of the conventional payoff (and resultant satisfaction) that eludes a story where there’s no real, tangible resolution. So you can’t help but get caught up in the filmmaker’s indignation over how it plays out. His protagonists’ victory seems decidedly hollow — yes, they won. But we all lost.

The Big Short is out Friday.