Movie Review: The Big Short

(l to r): Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling. Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk. © 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
(l to r): Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling. Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk. © 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Is The Big Short dead on the money?

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

If we want to revisit the wholesale thievery perpetrated by Wall Street that led to the crash of 2008, at least The Big Short makes us laugh all the way to the bank. Um, if we only had a bank that we wanted to revisit.

While the financial institutions hope that we’ll forget all about the economic nastiness of 2008, the film industry – notwithstanding with its own corporate ties – knows a good bet when it sees one. In recent years, movies about this particular banking crisis have included Inside Job, Margin Call, Too Big to Fail and, debuting last October, the excellent 99 Homes. Now, ironically releasing amid the free-flowing consumer dollars of the holiday season, comes The Big Short. And unlike Congress’ lack of initiative to reform big banking … this film does not disappoint.

The story looks at four disparate outsiders who are far enough removed from the center of the action to see it for what it’s worth … and for what it’s not. In 2005, when one offbeat guy from Deutsche Bank learns that some crazy fund manager in San Jose is questioning the supposedly rock solid home mortgage business, he backs the theory, subsequently persuading yet another unconventional hedge fund group to get involved. Eventually the three of them invest millions in credit default swaps (in effect, betting against the booming housing market). Separately, a twentysomething ragtag duo (the engaging John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) discover the same crack in the dam. With the help of onetime stockbroker turned doomsday predictor (Brad Pitt), they, too, get busy.

Much of the pleasure of The Big Short comes from these colorful eccentrics. First up is Ryan Gosling, playing cocky Deutsche Bank dealmaker Jared Vennett. Additionally, Vennett serves as the movie’s ersatz tour guide, introducing the other players and bringing in some banking backstory, all in voiceover, as well as taking his know-it-all delivery straight to camera when introducing real-life celebrities to explain some of Wall Street’s trickier jargon. (Look for delightful cameos from Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez.) With his ridiculous wig and smooth-talking car salesman persona, Gosling crackles, but never upstages.

Christian Bale as Michael Burry in "The Big Short" (Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk © 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Christian Bale as Michael Burry. Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk © 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Enter Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, a San Jose neurosurgeon turned genius hedge fund manager, burdened with a glass eye and an Asperger-like absence of social skills. As the decision-maker for his own group of wary investors — who already distrust a barefooted weirdo who wildly beats on his drums as he accompanies heavy metal music — it’s his initial brilliant assessment of the true validity of the mortgage bond market that triggers the other lead characters to jump into action. No surprise, Bale throws himself into this role with wild abandon, bringing an über-outrageous presence that sets the tone of this cinematic hyper-fest.

Steve Carell stars as third lead Mark Baum, his angry, high-pitched voice cutting through the bullshit. His distrusting nature is set up via a flashback, as the concerned family rabbi tells young Mark’s mother that, “He studies so hard because he is looking for inconsistencies in the word of God.” Though Carell’s Baum exhibits a persona writ large, he adroitly touches on the sorrow that drives him.

It’s difficult to imagine a better adaptation of Michael Lewis’s 2010 bestseller, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.” Screenwriters Charles Randolph and Adam McKay manage to retain the book’s clarity, all the while infusing the script with more zip and flavor than Wall Street deserves.

The big surprise is that the director is Adam McKay (yes, the same McKay who serves as Will Farrell’s creative other half, who’d helmed such earlier slapstick pieces as Anchorman, Talladega Nights and the halting Step Brothers). Here, McKay metamorphoses into a dazzling satirist, imbuing The Big Short with dizzying amounts of pop and punch. More to his credit, he deftly balances the over-the-top with the dramatic, frequently reminding us that, reminiscent of Nero, the banks fiddled as Rome burned. Unlike 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street (a similar yet different animal), this film allows a deeper exploration of the humanity smothered under the slick. Sobering shots of people losing their homes, destitute and living on the streets, are interspersed with scenes of obscene wealth.

Left to right: Jeremy Strong plays Vinnie Daniel, Rafe Spall plays Danny Moses, Hamish Linklater plays Porter Collins, Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, Jeffry Griffin plays Chris and Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett in The Big Short from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises
(l to r): Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Steve Carell, Jeffry Griffin, Ryan Gosling. Photo credit: Jaap Buitendijk. © 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Taking a different approach to the classic talking-head scenarios (such as in the aforementioned Margin Call), McKay and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shot the many office scenes with the intent to include the audience in a you-are-there type modality. Per McKay: “Barry uses this sort of neo-vérité technique of shooting, which creates a level of intimacy and urgency within the frame. By contrast, if you shoot with the traditional proscenium frame and three-layer lights, it makes everything look glossy and is more intimidating to the audience.”

Nothing intimidates here. Speaking of intimidation – such as the methodology used by Wall Street – the word is defined as: “to overawe or cow … by superior display of wealth.” Bingo.

And the antidote? The Big Short.

Like a strong portfolio, this winning movie is a compilation of contrasts: it’s humorous and disturbing, lucid and delirious, heartfelt and ice cold. And though it clocks in at a lengthy 130 minutes, The Big Short is a ride on a rocket ship that compels from first frame to last.


Rating on a scale of 5 faux AAA-rated bonds: 4.5

Release date: December 23, 2015 (wide)
Directed by: Adam McKay
Screenplay by: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay
Based on the book by Michael Lewis, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Marisa Tomei, Finn Wittrock
Running Time: 130 minutes
Rating: R

Here’s the trailer:

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Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

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