Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) in The Big Short (Paramount Pictures)
The 2008 housing crisis that crashed the economy and plunged the United States into the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression is inherently uncinematic. The rot that caused the crash was systemic and cannot be blamed on even the most loathsome of the figures such as Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers and Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide. Even with these villains, there are no heroes, and the cause of the collapse rests on mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps and other terms that would baffle even some people with financial training.
The Big Short takes a story that has no real heroes, no clear villains and a story that could be utterly incomprehensible and performs a nearly heroic feat. It makes the collapse of the economy into one of the best and certainly the most essential film released in 2015.
That the film comes from director Adam McKay makes The Big Short even more miraculous. McKay has earned Hollywood hundreds of millions of dollars through his collaborations with Will Ferrell, including Step Brothers, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and The Other Guys. These comedies are perfectly fine examples of the genre but reveal absolutely none of the intricacies required to handle a film with such utter complexity. One could envision Bennett Miller – whose Moneyball was based on a book by The Big Short author Michael Lewis – taking on the project, or perhaps David O. Russell, whose American Hustle brought clarity to a lower-level financial fraud.
What McKay does in The Big Short is make a detailed, complex story where much of the information is either confusing or boring into something that is lively, exciting and often tremendously funny. McKay enlists celebrities such as Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain to explain the various concepts in inventive ways, a tactic that reveals an immense confidence in the audience. The Big Short knows that people can understand this but might not necessarily have the patience to figure it out. McKay may have made his career making movies about man-children, but here he treats his audience as adults.
The Big Short centers around several disparate characters who, at least somewhat independently from one another, discover that the housing market is approaching a bubble of epic proportions and is bound to crash. These are true stories, although only one of the characters, Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) appears in the film under his real name. The rest – who include Wall Street investors Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and former trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) – wage their fortunes and reputations on the idea of ‘shorting’ the housing market by betting that it would fail.
With the exception of Gosling’s character, who embodies the stereotype of the grown-up Wall Street frat boy, the main characters of The Big Short are an assortment of neurotics, obsessives and malcontents. These are essentially the only classes of people who could discover Wall Street’s fraud. None of them are particularly interested in getting along, whether because it is not in their nature (Bale plays Burry as a nearly classic case of Asperger’s), paranoia (Pitt’s Rickert refuses to speak on unsecured lines) or a general belief that humanity is doomed (Carell’s Baum).
If there is one stand-out in the cast, it is Carell, who after last year’s Foxcatcher proves that he is the best dramatic actor to emerge from the comedy ranks since Bill Murray, with whom he shares a similar moroseness. Baum is part of the Wall Street banking community, but is not of that community. His loathing, whether of himself or the community in which he works, is palpable. Carelll may be nominated for an Academy Award for the second year in the row, although it is unclear whether his role will be deemed lead or supporting. No matter the category, there is no man more deserving of an Oscar this year.
Where The Big Short succeeds in particular is explaining that the cancer that Wall Street inflicted on society is so malignant that it infects everything it touches, from the ratings agencies that rubber-stamp the quality of the securities to the mortgage issuers who sell houses to people who cannot verify their income or assets. The Big Short enlists a first-rate cast of actors, including Melissa Leo, Max Greenfield and Karen Gillan as characters whose livelihoods depend on accepting the poisonous nature of their positions. The movie is well aware that this is not a fraud that required a conspiracy of a few actors like that of Bernie Madoff. The government, the banks, the mortgage brokers and everyone that the mortgage-backed security industry touched is culpable.
There may not be a better film released in 2015 than The Big Short, but even if another proves a better piece of art, there is no film that is more essential. This is the clearest, most entertaining explanation of how Wall Street caused an economic collapse that, as the film notes, likely killed tens of thousands of people. The Big Short is not a film that audiences should see. It is a film that audiences must see.
The Big Short
Now in select theaters; everywhere Dec. 23
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