“The Big Short,” (2015) co-written and directed by Adam McKay juggles an impressive number of characters who take on the daunting task of explaining exactly what caused the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression back in 2007-2008. This premise could very easily make for a dry and technical movie, with a ton of complicated terms that even the actors don’t actually understand, but “The Big Short” avoids that deftly by focusing on its strengths: its cast.
The story of “The Big Short” is told by the few outsiders who uncovered the impending doom facing the American housing market, the same few who decided to bet against it and as a result profited tremendously when all was said and done. McKay chooses to bring all the mechanics of this horribly confusing time in history down to layman’s terms by using a quasi-mockumentary structure. Meaning, before the jargon that’s being thrown around can even begin to annoy the audience, the characters pause and directly talk them through it. While this stylistic choice is a little jarring at first, it quickly becomes necessary and even proves to be one of the film’s best comedic features.
The audience is introduced to the myriad cast of characters by Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, whose quick-witted and smooth-talking antics shine like never before. He narrates the film’s heavier moments by literally stopping the show to bring in celebrities to simplify the rage-inducing scams that unfold in the film. In one of these asides, Margo Robbie explains how the mortgages made by the banks became shadier over time, all while sitting in a bathtub and sipping champagne. Just when things start to get a little too insane and morally dubious, the larger-than-life elements like these that are scattered throughout the film help by reining the audience back in to remind them, “Yes, this actually happened!”
Other characters like Christian Bale’s Michael Burry, an eccentric former neurologist turned hedge-fund manager with a glass eye, and Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, a strong-willed hedge fund manager, navigate the mess that unfolded in the housing market with aplomb. The audience can’t help but to root for them–even with with the knowledge that in doing so, they’re actually rooting for the market to crash and to thus bring financial ruin to millions of people around the world. That sobering reality fades in and out of the film, making the character’s triumphs taste just a little bittersweet.
“The Big Short” shatters the fourth wall again and again, offering no apologies and not even a glimmer of a happy ending. Doing so would be disingenuous, as the film starts out by making its sole task to inform the people just how they got screwed.
The film ends with a few uneasy slides that outline what happened next, which hardly need to go into great detail. Everybody knows about the aftermath of the crash because they are living it to this day. As a result, the film provokes feelings that overwhelm the audience well after it’s over, keeping discussion of the film’s themes and its performances going for days after. A great movie knows exactly how to push the right buttons, and “The Big Short” does so impeccably.