Adam McKay may seem like a strange filmmaker to opt for an awards season biopic of the beginnings of the global economic meltdown of 2008, given his previous form as the director of Anchorman, Step Brothers and The Other Guys. Though it is clearly something close to his heart (remember the serious animated lecture that acted as an appendix to the not-awful The Other Guys), can a filmmaker like McKay pull off something so dense and complicated and, yes, serious.
The Big Short, a title that recalls more The Big Easy or The Big Lebowski than The Big Sleep, is about a few (all-male) groups who saw evidence of a housing bubble and who bet against the seemingly rock-solid housing market, reaping millions as millions lose homes and jobs. We have Michael Burry (a largely restrained Christian Bale), a solo financial wizard, who first sees the inevitable collapse due to the precarious way in which all of the banks had tied their money and capital up in potentially worthless mortgage bonds. His plan inspires others including Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and Mark Baum (a quite good Steve Carell), who all tie up their funds in betting against the housing market.
The film traces the risks that these characters take, the pitfalls and the dark moments in which bankruptcy looms before the ultimate pay-off. Here, particularly in the Burry storyline, the film is closest to that other Michael Lewis adaptation, Moneyball, about the lone innovator who takes a serious risk and ends up triumphant and vindicated in the end. All fine with baseball (though that film was rather dull), but more troubling in the case of The Big Short. The film’s primary focus is on these financial traders who saw the fall coming and bet on it, making a quick buck in the process, which is not the greatest angle from which to address the serious greed and avarice that led to the economic collapse that ruined lives. The film does sort-of address this upside-down morality with Baum having doubts about what he has done, but ultimately the film strives to get an underdog triumph storyline out of something that can only be negative, if not fully misanthropic. Surely that misses the point about what this purely-financial collapse ought to represent.
The film does try to offer a serious critique of what brought about the collapse and the leniency of the response of the world’s governments. There is a running sense of disbelief at the stupidity of the bankers (how did they not know that this was going to happen? Did they really think this kind of policy was going to be sustainable?), that is nicely countered when we hear from Baum about the government’s bailouts, i.e. they knew that there were doing damage, but they were confident that the taxpayer would foot the bill and so simply didn’t care. The film does rouse your indignation, possibly even more effectively than the too-often misunderstood The Wolf of Wall Street. However, the film is not enough of a sustained critique. Though it will inspire a new ire in people who find the news boring, it is just not serious enough, working too hard to be an entertainment with heroes, an underdog storyline and a damaging, slightly desperate comedic strain that does it no favours. So we have Margot Robbie in a hot tub and Selena Gomez playing blackjack to explain CDO’s, stupid jokes that are wholly out of place and stupid pop culture montages. McKay seems to believe that too serious a critique will only confuse and irritate audiences, so he has tried to make the film as entertaining as possible, but it only makes it look foolish, hysterical and jumpy. Sadly, the filmmakers simply do not have enough trust in their material.
And that is it. The Big Short is a story of the outsider vindicated, which severely misses the point; it largely avoids the darker side to this story (the homelessness, the poverty) in favour of out-of-place comedy and easy pokes at villainy and greed; it lacks the intellectual heft to truly tackle its subject. It may be a good primer for the initiated, but with its hot tubs and poker games, it may feel like an insult to one’s intelligence. Though given how the collapse came about and the ease with which a stunning critique like The Wolf of Wall Street can be taken as a celebration and an inspiration, maybe that is what we deserve.