Wall Street is never depicted as being friends of the public, practically regardless of the media platform from which the story is being told. We have seen several narratives depicting the financial disaster of the mid-2000s that continues to haunt many to this day. Whether they're documentaries or adaptations of the events that took place, they all predictably generate a great amount of frustration within the viewer. Writer/director Adam McKay has been known for delivering hit comedies with Will Ferrell, including Step Brothers. However, the closing night gala at AFI FEST 2015 happens to be his first drama that covers subject matter as touchy as this.
Based upon the book written by Michael Lewis, the film follows four separate outsiders in the world of high-finance. While they all have different backgrounds, they all have one thing in common: they predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse in the mid-2000s. Rather than trying to expose the corruption taking place on Wall Street, they took advantage of it to make a profit.
There are two very distinct portions to The Big Short, which depict two very different tones. The first should feel natural to those who are familiar with McKay's work. He utilizes a lot of humor in the introduction to a time that actually isn't that long ago. We're treated to a narration from Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), which can occasionally give a bit too much exposition, although the dialogue itself is quite decent. Since there are four separate stories that must inevitably intertwine, it takes a while to introduce the audience to the characters. As expected, some of the narratives are more interesting than others. Surprisingly, Michael Burry's (Christian Bale) holds the least amount of an impact, even despite the fact that we spend quite a bit of time watching him being driven mad. On the other hand, Mark Baum (Steve Carell) offers the most intriguing story, as this character feels the most genuine. While he still has the aggressive Wall Street personality, there's more to him than greed. We're exposed to a human side of him that makes his narrative much more interesting to follow than that of his competitors and colleagues.
The film's greatest strength is in its screenplay, as McKay and Randolph have done a lot of interesting things with The Big Short. The dialogue can be quick and witty when discussing financial terms, but it can also be grounded. Perhaps some of the funniest sequences are when the characters break the fourth wall in order to talk to the audience directly when discussing more complex financial concepts. At this point, the film cuts away from the narrative and we're told about a specific topic from the likes of names such as Selena Gomez. Their random nature are what make them so wonderfully entertaining. This is also a way to explain the financial lingo to audiences who may not be well-versed in the subject, while still treating the viewer with respect. There are a lot of other smart choices made by McKay and Randolph, such as the constant scene transitions taking place mid-sentence. While this may sound obnoxious, it actually introduces a certain urgency to the film that had me feeling frantic by the time the credits started rolling.
The second portion of the film discussed earlier in this review is a more dramatic one. Once The Big Short makes this turn, it doesn't look back. It mostly abandons the humor for a more serious look at the financial crisis from a perspective that proves to be quite unique and compelling. While we know how it's going to end, there are some small details of the story that I didn't know actually happened. There was clearly a great amount of research done when creating this picture. Nevertheless, the drama is appropriately scaled, as it never feels melodramatic. Rather, McKay identifies that the stakes are incredibly high, and the drama is grounded. This could have easily turned into an over-the-top mess, but McKay keeps the film along the fine line of being funny and dramatic.
I think that it's fair to say, who isn't in this movie? The Big Short has a highly impressive cast that will undeniably attract the attention of mass audiences, even if the subject matter doesn't. Steve Carell turns in an astounding performance as Mark Baum. He proves that he deserves to receive another Oscar nomination, as he displays both the humor that we're used to seeing from him, as well as some difficult dramatic themes that are quite effective. Even though Michael Burry's narrative is the least interesting, Christian Bale still manages to portray the character well. Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett with a certain energy that truly sells the idea of the role. While he doesn't have a lot of screen time, he manages to steal the spotlight in practically every scene that he's featured in. The supporting cast of Brad Pitt, Karen Gillian, Max Greenfield, Melissa Leo, and Marisa Tomei may sound like almost too much star power for one film, but McKay keeps it appropriately focused. They simply act as fun, additional appearances that aid in developing the idea that the film is crafting about Wall Street.
While not absolutely perfect, The Big Short does a lot of things right. Given the subject matter, some may find it odd that McKay decided to incorporate so much humor throughout the film's first half, but it's delivered in a way that is appropriate and incredibly effective. Meanwhile, the more dramatic second half is what really displays the weight that this "bubble collapse" placed on the world's economy. The film holds a sense of urgency that had me sitting at the edge of my seat from start to finish, as it never has a moment of "downtime." Even if you're more interested in Margin Call's more serious approach, you may be surprised with what McKay has to say here. Even though we have become used to expecting films such as Step Brothers from him, this shows that he's capable of doing so much more. The icing on the cake is Steve Carell's superb performance that is more than worthy of an Oscar nomination. The Big Short is smart, engaging, and consistently well-written. Highly recommended!
The Big Short played at AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi on November 12th.