Give It to Me Straight
By Nick Pinkerton

The Big Short
Dir. Adam McKay, U.S., Paramount Pictures

A front-row seat in the financial arena in the months and years before the 2008 financial crisis, Adam McKay’s The Big Short aligns itself with the perspectives of the handful of traders who saw that the housing and credit bubble was fitting to pop, and got very rich thanks to their foresight.

Adapting Michael Lewis’s 2010 nonfiction book of the same name, McKay and coscreenwriter Charles Randolph have employed a whole bevy of devices to enliven a story that essentially involves a bunch of dudes who bet (correctly) that the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) shell game was about to be broken up, laid down cash to bet that it would, then sat around in front of their Bloomberg terminals, hemorrhaging investor money, as they waited for it to happen. Among the techniques employed in The Big Short are several montages courtesy of editor Hank Corwin, a former Oliver Stone and Terrence Malick collaborator: the imagery is junky and pixelated, taken from search engine results, cable news, Jim Cramer’s Mad Money, and YouTube, matching climbing high-rises and endless spreadsheet columns. Two of the canaries in the proverbial coalmine who will be our protagonists open with direct addresses to the camera: California-based hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) delivers an abridged autobiography to a potential employee, while New York–based Deutsche Bank trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) establishes himself as the movie’s principal emcee from the get-go, narrating the transformation of the cautious, somnolescent banking industry in the 1970s by mortgage-backed security innovator Lewis Ranieri at the investment bank Salomon Brothers, credited with taking banking “from the country club to the strip club.”

Vennett will play a central role in the drama to come, accidentally cluing in others to the potential financial rewards to be reaped in the coming crisis—first Mark Baum (Steve Carell, in a part based on the book’s Steve Eisman), suspicious and irascible manager of his own Wall Street fund, then Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), two wet-behind-the-ears fund managers newly arrived to NYC from Boulder. Vennett explains the vulnerability of CDOs to Baum and his team using a tower of Jenga blocks as a visual aid, and whenever acronyms start flying fast and thick he pops back up with footnote-like interjections explaining the insider jargon, making sure the viewer is kept up to speed. “Does it make you feel bored or stupid?” Vennett asks, breaking from a line of shop talk before introducing the first in a series of cameo guest lectures, this one Margot Robbie, sipping from a champagne flute in a bubble bath while offering a layman’s definition of risky subprime mortgages (“Whenever you hear subprime, think shit”). Elsewhere we get Anthony Bourdain describing CDOs as a recipe for seafood stew made of three-day old halibut, and Selena Gomez and “Father of ‘Behavioral Economics’” Richard H. Thaler, PhD stopping by to describe the financial sector’s side-betting game at a Las Vegas craps table—they’re effective scenes, if a little condescending in their assumption that the theoretical Joe Lunchpail viewer can only be reached via his thrall with celebrity culture (an implicit assumption of this star-studded lecture hall.)

The many scenes of office BS-ing feel like they’ve been tuned up in improv sessions, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the career and working method of director McKay, who made his feature debut with another ensemble comedy featuring Carell and dealing with the follies of self-important mediocrities in suits, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). McKay is probably best known for this and other collaborations with comedian Will Ferrell through their Gary Sanchez Productions and the website that they cofounded in 2007, Funny or Die—a snippet of the first video posted on the site, in which a frantic Ferrell is shaken down for rent money by his profane two-year-old landlady (McKay’s daughter), is included among the montages. McKay is also an outspoken Democrat and coconspirator in Ferrell’s ongoing trolling of George W. Bush, directing the comedian’s 2009 stage appearance as the 43rd President, You’re Welcome America. Now the director appears set to follow the career trajectory of Jay Roach, who has skipped between farces (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents, Dinner for Schmucks) and sententious political dramas (Recount, Game Change, and Trumbo), and whose 2012 Congressional election comedy The Campaign McKay coproduced.

The techniques that have served McKay well in the funny business, however, prove a little hinky in a project like The Big Short, which attempts to switch freely between several different registers. As with the caricatured characterizations of the KVWN news team in Anchorman—the arrogant Ron Burgundy, the lothario Brian Fantana, the low-I.Q. Brick Tamland—the dramatis personae of The Big Short are reduced to a few shorthand quirks. Bale has his off-kilter glass eye squint, his air-drumming to Master of Puppets, and his fantasy novels. (An appearance by a paperback of Terry Brooks’s The Scions of Shannara provided the film’s biggest laugh.) Carell barks irascibly, has a weird haircut, and generally bull-in-a-China-shops his way through scenes. Gosling, who carries on an abusive double-act with his assistant, is unfailingly snide and arrogant. (“I never hung out with these idiots after work, ever,” he tells the camera, “I had fashion friends.”) Brad Pitt, playing an advisor to Geller and Shipley and boasting a producer credit, gets some patter about health food and cleanses, though seems mostly to approach the film as a dutiful piece of public service. The individual shticks, once established, remain mostly static—probably for the best given the results when McKay strives for pathos. The director’s loose approach is well suited to scenes of boy’s club ball-busting, but the actors are left flailing in moments of high drama, and one gets a sense that certain scenes have been cut around and certain performances almost entirely occluded, an emotional exchange between Baum and his wife (a short-changed Marisa Tomei) being a particular offender. (It’s alarming to note that the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awarded Corwin for Best Editing when he is frequently doing salvage work here.)

For a while, at least, The Big Short moves along with an insouciant bounce sorely missing in other December prestige releases, and even when McKay is overbearing with his effects—a music video digression set to Ludacris’s “Money Maker” or an onscreen illustration of an epididymis for example—the film retains a sort of brigand charm while setting up its pieces and players. It’s only as the chickens come home to roost that McKay seems entirely out of his depth, aiming for righteous spleen and instead stringing together several tut-tutting speeches. After breezing along for more than half of its running time, the film takes a turn for the tone-deaf and wrong-footed, never worse than when expressing fraudulent concern for “common people,” represented during a research trip to Florida by Baum and Co. in the form of a pole dancer juggling multiple mortgages and a working-class tattooed lug whose landlord has absconded with his rent who reappears briefly towards the end of the movie living with his family in a SUV.

In an essay about the American director Samuel Fuller, the French critic-cum-filmmaker Luc Moullet wrote, “On fascism, only the point of view of someone who has been tempted is of any interest,” and the same is true of capitalism. This is a big part of what made Stone’s Wall Streets tick, and why Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the handful of essential films to come out of this decade at its halfway point. Scorsese’s film, proving Walt Kelly’s line “We have met the enemy and he is us,” whisks the viewer along and implicates him for enjoying the ride, while McKay merely flatters, placing the audience squarely in the camp of the ragtag group of “outsiders and weirdos” who perceived “the giant lie at the heart of the economy,” inviting us to share in the incredulous “Can you believe these guys?” glances in a meeting with some Miami guys who put the “bro” in mortgage brokering. The ensemble players do take their turn practicing pensive sadface in the film’s final half-hour, a bittersweet victory lap, but this nowhere challenges the general air of smartest-guys-in-the-room gloating. McKay has bet on an audience that prefers to be coddled, and though this might allow him to break even at the box office, it never returns big creative dividends. Of course there is the chance that The Big Short will help to clarify the financial crisis to a mass audience and introduce a sea change in American politics—but if you buy that, I’ve got some penny stocks and a job opportunity from Herbalife that you should look into.