Making a comedy about an event that caused enormous heartache and hardship for many thousands of people is a tough task. Yet, that is exactly what Adam McKay has set out to do with The Big Short, an exploration of the collapse of the American mortgage market in 2008. To his great credit, McKay, who has produced numerous comedies of varying quality as part of his production partnership with Will Ferrell, including the likes of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Step Brothers and The Other Guys, has delivered a film that is very funny, but never makes fun of those who fell victim to the corporate maleficence that played such a significant role in the global financial crisis. With a stellar cast at his disposal, this is easily McKay’s best work yet, tracking the advent of the mortgage market collapse from the perspective of those who saw it coming and subsequently benefitted financially when it all turned to shit.
The film intertwines three distinct storylines, all of which focus on individuals or groups who can see the crash coming but can’t convince anybody that matters. The first narrative arc focuses on Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a physician who has foregone his medical career to run a very successful hedge fund. A solitary savant with limited social skills, Burry is a genius at data analysis who finds some terrifying data within the structures of a large number of mortgage bonds. He implements a radical idea to “short,” – or bet against – a housing bond market that has been over-inflated and is primed to burst with the banks completely clueless and so cocky that they issue Burry with an insurance policy of sorts that, should the market remain stable, will cost Burry’s company millions. However, if the market collapses, he stands to make many fortunes while so many others will be left with nothing. Ryan Gosling is Jared Vennett, a cocky banker who becomes privy to the deal, sees an opportunity to get on board and convinces a small investment brokerage led by Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a perpetually angry guy whose desire to expose and punish the sins of the finance industry is driven by a family tragedy that he refuses to discuss, to get involved. The third narrative strand revolves around Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert, a former broker who abandoned the industry in disgust who finds himself helping a couple of upstarts who have also cottoned on to the inherent and inevitable collapse that is to come and want of piece of the action.
The film is filled with jargon and industry terminology that is gobbledygook to the average punter and the machinations of it all are very convoluted. McKay uses a range of stylistic approaches to communicate the ideas to viewers, from Ryan Gosling breaking the fourth wall to cameos from the likes of Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain delivering explanations of various concepts. As gimmicky as these sound, they are actually quite amusing and they work more effectively than other scenes that attempt to illuminate the instability of the system, such as a stripper explaining to Baum how her dodgy mortgage works, all the while gyrating on stage. Overall though, the film is a witty expose of an industry filled with smug, supercilious types who were never held accountable for their actions.
Adapted by McKay and Charles Randolph from a book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short is scathing in its attack on a housing mortgage market so fundamentally flawed. The humour isn’t directed at the victims of the crash, instead targeting the ludicrousness of a system that ultimately failed so many. Of course, most infuriating of all is the fact that the government bailed out the banks despite their collapse being the result of fraudulent, negligent, criminal behaviours and a blatant disregard for their customers. With solid performances all round from an almost entirely male cast – the under-utilised Marisa Tomei as Baum’s wife Cynthia the only notable exception – The Big Short is an entertaining examination of the very worst excesses of a capitalist system. It is a challenge to craft something that can make you laugh and loathe simultaneously, but McKay has succeeded in doing just that.