Adam McKay may be best known for making millions laugh as director of Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and other comedies, but he'd prefer to get you righteously outraged. His buddy cop comedy The Other Guys saw McKay introduce a new, angrier side as he ripped white collar criminals and exposed their crimes in a scathing credits sequence. That was just the tip of the iceberg, and while it felt a little out of place then it certainly doesn't in The Big Short, undoubtedly the most entertaining movie about the boring world of banking you're likely to ever see.
Based on the book by Michael Lewis, whose Moneyball managed to make baseball stats interesting, The Big Short educates, thrills, and angers. You may even find yourself laughing every now and then...when you're not clenching teeth at the Hell unscrupulous Wall Street bankers unleashed on the American people. What's fascinating is that McKay's film is, for the most part, about the very people who exploited the crashing housing market for their own personal gain. It's about the people we should be rooting for to fail, and yet their actions are only a small part of the problem. It's the system that we hate, not the individuals taking advantage of it.
To help accomplish this, McKay creates a surreal, fast-paced world with big, bold and weird characters, including one, Ryan Gosling's morally dubious Wall Street trader Jared Vennett, who speaks directly to us Wolf of Wall Street-style. Think of The Big Short as a close relative of Scorsese's film of white collar excess, and a sortof prequel to Rahmin Bahrani's 99 Homes which shows the crisis from the perspective of those getting screwed. Christian Bale, sporting a glass eye and a lisp only Mike Tyson could love, is Michael Burry, the antisocial hedge fund manager who figured out long before the 2008 financial crash that banks were flooding the market with dangerous subprime mortgages. He used that information to bet in his own favor, basically betting on the market to fail when nobody could predict that ever happening. This was unheard of. To put it simply, Burry was hoping to cash in on an event that would devastate the lives of millions. Sounds awful, right? Do we hate Burry for it? Not really. There are other characters that respond to Burry's actions in different ways; Finn Wittrock and John Magaro play "garage band" traders looking to cash-in with the big boys, so they turn to an ex-Wall Street insider (a shaggy Brad Pitt) to help them do it. The heart, soul, and voice of outrage belongs to Steve Carell as Mark Baum, who has long believed in the system's corruption and gets all the proof he needs from Vennett in a visual display using Jenga. Sold!
It's Vennett and Baum who serve as our guides through a world of bragging bankers putting the screws to the middle class. Vennett makes all of the financial jargon palatable by introducing celebrity cameos to serve as welcome distractions to the hard and ugly truths being told. On the flip side, Baum is someone who has been personally and tragically affected by the topsy-turvy market. Although Baum is hardly one of the 99% he's someone we can identify with because he has skin in the game that isn't just about money.
Does The Big Short signal the end of McKay as a comedic filmmaker? Probably not, and to be fair his first dramatic effort sports a few awkward spots tonally as he tries to suppress his comic urges. But eventually McKay gets his legs under him, summons up that fiery indignation, and makes an impassioned plea for the rest of us to wake up to the reality of what happened. The Big Short is McKay's desperate attempt to make sure something like this never occurs again; now let's just hope enough people pay attention.
Rating: 4 out of 5