Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Adam McKay & Charles Randolph
Cinematographer: Barry Ackroyd
Composer: Nicholas Britell
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt, Hamish Linklater, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Max Greenfield, Billy Magnussen, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, Tracy Letts.
Between 2007 and 2010 the United States suffered from of force so powerful that it threatened its very foundations, but these attacks did not come from the outside, rather an internal malfunction that could bring the demise of a country that likes to proclaim itself the absolute best and strongest, bar none. We now refer to this period as the financial crisis, brought on by the disastrous implosion of the housing market and the credit bubble. So far so good, right? We all understand the situation that far, but if any American layperson were asked to expand on what actually happened I believe (and am speaking for myself here as well) that the details would become murky at best. The truth is that the average American was caught completely unawares when everything went down, and in the years since explanation and clarity have been missing in action. Well, to remedy this comes The Big Short, Adam McKay’s new movie about the topic, all that led up to it, and a few men who predicted it and were rooting for and banking on the collapse to occur.
The film is made up of a very large and talented cast, including the likes of Christian Bale and Brad Pitt. The film is vibrant, shiny, ostentatious, fast paced, almost as if the camera had visual ADD – scenes are cut off before characters have the chance to finish their lines. The music and score are bombastic and loud, just like all the characters that appear throughout. Steve Carell speaks at a tone so shrieking and high that when his scenes are over one is almost glad to get a break. Bale’s character listens to death metal music in each of his scenes, and unless it’s your cup of tea music-wise, those moments are maddening. The film seems to have taken a note out of the Spinal Tap book and has taken it all to 11.
Story-wise the film shifts its focus constantly, dividing its time between three groups of men and their realizations of the faults that exist within the housing market and the way credit was operating. These discoveries eventually lead each group to predict the burst of the bubble and unprecedented doom for America’s financial stability. What do the men do with this information? They don’t disclose it, nor do they alert the media or the population, instead they choose to attempt to capitalize on it, betting against the banks and financial institutions and placing all their holdings and reputations on the economic apocalypse they saw as impeding. If they were wrong they would lose everything, if they won they would gain stratospheric amounts but everyone else would be destroyed.
The biggest problem with the film is how little confidence the filmmakers have in the viewing public. Granted, the topic can be unpalatable and definitely confusing, but the film goes overboard with the expositional dialogue. Things are explained over and over again, narration reiterates and fills in missing pieces, on screen text is added, sometimes with graphics, to make sure the viewer is up to date, and, ridiculously, at times certain topics and concepts are explained by guest cameos (such as Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain) to clarify. Clearly McKay feels that we need to see Margot Robbie in a bathtub to understand what a CDO is. Add in the fact that the majority of the actors speak often direct to camera, breaking the fourth wall, (this is not a mockumentary) and the end result feels both a little insulting and like a bizarre training video.
I didn’t hate the movie, in fact I enjoyed several parts of it, but was exhausted by the end. I was also troubled with so many of the issues the movie raised and spent a lot of time afterwards coming to terms with what I had just actually seen, too distracted by the movie’s bells and whistles to notice until the credits had ended. McKay, until now, has only directed the most base and dumb of comedies and sometimes his inexperience with more meaningful topics showed too much. His directing also makes a film about something so recent feel really dated, as visually and tonally the film is closer to an 80s movie like Wall Street than it is to Margin Call, which deals with the same themes in a much more serious way. The cast is what really elevates this work and makes such a difficult and, for so many, painful chapter in American history appetizing and maybe just a little more clear.