“Trust me. This happened.”
I can honestly say I learned something watching The Big Short. That’s no small feat considering it was directed and cowritten by funnyman Adam McKay. His collaborations with Will Ferrell acting like a doofus are generally the exact opposite of educational. But he couldn’t have told this story about the handful of eccentrics who bet against the American economy and won by seeing the mortgage bubble everyone else couldn’t (or fraudulently ignored) without a financial crash course. CDOs, tranches, and sub-primes were as synonymous with gibberish as bankers/traders hope so they can wield autonomous control over our money. Thanks to McKay and Charles Randolph’s hilariously depressing narrative culled from Michael Lewis’ nonfiction look “inside the doomsday machine,” I could understand what went down and how despicable it was.
Boy was it despicable. These guys were in the industry and even they couldn’t fathom how far the corruption went. Cynical or not, their brains refused to believe how bad things were because there was still a code of ethics despite the allure of making money. Not for everyone, mind you, but the majority of the main players showcased here. McKay’s lead narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is pretty much the epitome of Wall Street a-hole complete with a side-kick underling kept by his side to berate when not chanting “It smells like money” to the New York City skyline from his office window. He simply had the foresight to see his bank was betting on the wrong horse and to jump down the rabbit hole early.
The other three guys were in it for reasons other than getting rich. For Michael Burry (Christian Bale)—the only name of the big four that wasn’t changed—it was about digging into a system thought to be foolproof and finding a way to capitalize for his investors’ benefit. For Mark Baum (Steve Carell) it was a way to stick it to a system he could no longer tolerate after it took his humanity and indirectly helped, in his mind, contribute to family tragedy. As for Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), he was just an innocent bystander who quit the game years earlier before two young upstarts (John Magaro‘s Charlie Geller and Finn Wittrock‘s Jamie Shipley) piqued his curiosity after arriving with the genius idea of buying credit swaps.
These guys form the tale’s quirky menagerie: a one-eyed, Asperger’s-afflicted numbers man who literally cannot willfully be sarcastic (Bale is a delight in a change-of-pace role); an aggressive, profanity-lover who’s happiest when he’s angry (Carell impressively puts his name in the running for Best Supporting Actor) who employs two cynics worse than he (Jeremy Strong‘s no-bullshit Vinny and Hamish Linklater‘s overzealous pessimist Porter) and the type of optimist you love to hate (Rafe Spall‘s Danny); a recluse with fourteen phone lines to avoid government tapping cajoled out of retirement despite having the sharpest focus on who will ultimately lose when the dust settles (Pitt’s stoic demeanor is the perfect foil opposite his enthusiastic partners); and the epitome of a douchebag prick (Gosling is loving every second onscreen).
Yes they’re caricatures when all is said and done, but that type of satirical bent on an insane truth is what allows us laypeople to enter with confidence. McKay’s decision to let celebrities like Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain explain difficult concepts with visual stimuli doesn’t hurt either, even if the gag is as corny as it is informative. He and Randolph dumb things down by continuously breaking the fourth wall so the story can be told as an anecdote rather than thesis number-crunch. Liberties are taken—Charlie and Jamie turn to correct fictionalization on the part of their own characters—but the words “This actually happened” are always uttered right before the proverbial shit hits the fan. You can’t make this level of stupidity up.
The supporting cast feels like they’re in one of McKay’s earlier films because they appear to be playing their roles broadly when in fact that’s exactly how Wall Street runs. Billy Magnussen and Max Greenfield revel in the absurdity of their life choices, Karen Gillan defines vapid, and Byron Mann‘s reality check will make you want a shower. If this were pure satire it could be stomached no problem, but this is real life. Everything onscreen occurred whether the details were exacting or not. We feel the gut-punch right alongside Carell’s Baum and Pitt’s Rickert at ground zero when idealism evaporates for good. And we feel the pain endured by Bale’s Burry as the drive for wealth burns what he thought were friendships despite his numbers being sound.
The Big Short therefore doubles as comedy of errors and somber historical look at one of America’s darkest times. Thankfully those involved were so colorful because it cuts through the vocabulary lesson and entertains while educating how to hopefully save ourselves from letting a new generation of con men to do it again. McKay and Randolph peel back the curtain of a multi-billion dollar fraternity similar to The Wolf of Street even if the cinematic pedigree doesn’t look the same on the surface. They show the incredulity of the banks faking numbers and ratings when they had no legs to stand on and the media’s fear of exposing it due to the establishment’s power. Truth is meaningless when there’s a great chance it may still remain covered-up.