An adaptation of Michael Lewis’ bestselling 2010 novel of the same name, “The Big Short” explores the inner workings of the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the few individuals who profited from it through the unique perspective of a handful of financial industry outsiders. The plot weaves the intricate beginnings of the crisis through an exploration of the home loan industry and the financial instruments that caused the crisis. Director Adam McKay, who recently received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director for the film, certainly does not mince words in a film that directly indicts the financial industry, and the result is a sharp, superbly acted drama that finds a balance between tragedy and comedy.
The film centers on four individuals who foresaw the crisis, all played with excellent skill by renowned actors. Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling, building from their chemistry in the 2011 romantic comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” deliver strong performances as a hedge fund manager and a Deutsche Bank trader who believe the financial industry is on the verge of collapse. Gosling also acts as the story’s narrator and provides the background and information necessary to understand the intricacies of a complicated system.
In the film’s most complex role, Christian Bale plays the socially awkward hedge fund savant Mike Burry, who wishes to use his outsider status to challenge the majoritarian opinion of Wall Street. As per usual, Bale fully immerses himself in the quirks and mannerisms of his character, making his performance an absolute joy to watch. Brad Pitt completes the quartet as a jaded ex-trader assisting two up-and-coming fund managers. Though it pales in comparison to some of his previous performances, Pitt’s character still makes a worthy contribution to the cast, whose chemistry is evident throughout the course of the film. The all-star cast succeeds in bringing a human quality and depth to each of the characters, which explains the film’s nomination for Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
McKay’s approach to the film’s subject matter is unique and may not be to every viewer’s liking, as it deviates from the typical style of films on the financial industry, such as the 1987 classic “Wall Street” and the critically acclaimed 2011 drama “Margin Call.” McKay’s background in writing and directing comedy films, such as the modern classics “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” is evident and plays into the stylized quality of the film.
There is a certain neo-gonzo element at play, which comes to light with the various cutaways to music videos. In lieu of a traditional explanation of financial instruments, the film uses comical cameos from a wide range of celebrities, including Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain, to bring the blandness of collateralized debt obligation and other financial objects to life. Classicist film conventions, such as the fourth wall, are broken. The film walks a delicate line between exposing the humor in a financial crisis where millions of innocent individuals suffered and actually offering a serious criticism of the malpractice of the industry, yet McKay manages to strike the balance expertly.
The film is outlandish and crazy at times in both subject matter and style, but it works. The gonzo elements of the film distinguish it from other popular films concerning the financial industry, but it provides a more succinct, easily understood and entertaining explanation of the industry’s inner workings and trappings during the housing boom and the ensuing crisis. With focused direction, a crisp script and excellent acting, “The Big Short” is definitely one of the best films of 2015.