First as Tragedy, Then as Farce: The Big Short

Left to right: Steve Carell plays Mark Baum and Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett in The Big Short from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises

The Big Short
Directed by Adam McKay
Opens December 11

From the world of improv comedy to a detail-obsessed account of the 2008 financial crisis, Adam McKay’s career has followed an unusual trajectory. But the Funny or Die co-founder known best for directing the Anchorman films may not be so outside of his wheelhouse as it may first seem. If the third act of Anchorman 2 revealed one thing, it’s that McKay has a penchant for the absurd—and moreover for exploiting it for maximum amusement. Well, what’s more absurd than the corrupt world of banking and trading that led to global economic collapse?

The Big Short, based on the book by Michael Lewis, follows the small handful of folks who caught a whiff of the bullshit before the rest of us, and managed to exploit the crooked system and make millions by creating the credit default swap market, essentially betting on America’s housing market to crash. This includes a genius hedge fund manager, Michael Burry (played with expert eccentricity by Christian Bale), who simply knew how to read the numbers, and boldly poured millions and millions of investor dollars, as early as 2003, into shorting subprime mortgages. Another hedge fund manager, Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), is tipped off on the ensuing collapse by a hotshot trader, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and goes all in as part of a moral crusade against the big banks. Brad Pitt rounds out the cast as a retired investor, Ben Rickert, who recognizes that getting rich off the crash essentially means betting on the destruction of millions of American working-class lives.

The film plays like a dark comedy, but unfolds with deathly serious conviction. Dramatically, it’s a bit stilted and awkward, with uneven storytelling and a lack of real character development—but the film’s performances, momentous editing, and prevailing attitude of sheer anger and frustration overshadow its lesser parts. McKay goes to great lengths to explain every little detail of how everything works, pausing several times to mockingly comment on how difficult it is to understand the numbers and inner workings. Even more jawdropping than the banks’ oversight and ethical irresponsibility is the convolution of the very fabric of the system, which seems to be designed to be misunderstood, to mislead, and can be wielded as a weapon of deflection and deception for the gain of the rich. The characters’ and the film’s utter disbelief at the level of blatant criminality at the core of the economic powers that be is palpable, and sends you out of the cinema with your fists clenched. The Big Short isn’t without its clumsiness, but is a necessary and pointed assault.

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