In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a number of notable films have been released with the intent of showcasing the collapse from varying perspectives. J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call depicted the final days of an unnamed Wall Street bank through the eyes of its financial analysts, while Curtis Hanson’s Too Big To Fail showed the meltdown through the US government officials and bank executives who were forced to come together to save the economy. Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 bestseller, The Big Short focuses on a different group entirely: a select band of Wall Street “outsiders” who saw the credit bubble develop before anyone else did.
It starts with hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who notices a massive spike in subprime mortgage loans and decides that it would be profitable to effectively bet against the housing market through credit default swaps. This catches the attention of hotshot investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and after a misplaced phone call from his secretary, day trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) runs with the idea as well. When Baum and his team dig deeper into how these overrated packaged loans were perpetrated, they uncover a staggering level of fraud that threatens to take down not only the US housing market but the entire world economy as well.
The primary reason that this film flounders comes down to one simple fact: director Adam McKay simply does not know how to handle this material. He has the unenviable task of having to explain macroeconomic theory and terminology while also attempting to get us invested in the motivations of a host of unlikable characters, all while adding a supposed layer of zany self-aware humor into the mix. McKay has proven in the past that he can make us laugh (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) but when he’s tasked to take a complex narrative like this and try to make it funny, he comes across as a woefully incompetent storyteller.
It doesn’t help matters that The Big Short has a surprisingly unpleasant look to it too. From scattershot editing to distracting camera zooms to baffling black-and-white freeze frames, there are off-putting visual choices in just about every scene. Other bizarre touches like the distracting, fake-looking hair on the main actors or the stock footage montages of pop cultural milestones (with the indulgent inclusion of McKay’s own short “The Landlord”) crop up without warning and don’t seem to do much but deter from the main story at hand.
For those interested in learning more about the factors that led to the 2008 financial crisis in a more straight-forward approach, I can’t recommend the 2010 documentary Inside Job highly enough. That film lays out many of the same concepts that are also explored here but does so in a way that values the intelligence of the viewer instead of relying on condescending cameos for clarification. The Big Short had a chance to put a humorous spin on sobering true events but the lack of vision behind it makes it a frustrating miscalculation.