At the end of The Big Short, which puts the economics of the 2008 financial collapse in understandable terms, the following words appear on screen: "When the dust settled from the collapse, $5 trillion in pension money, real estate value, 401k, savings, and bonds had disappeared. 8 million people lost their jobs, 6 million lost their homes. And that was just in the USA."
The Big Short is a snappy caper film, only this time the money is being stolen from us. Director Adam McKay co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph, based on the non-fiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis. McKay and Randolph understand that most of us don't understand economics, so they write explanations into the film. At one point, gorgeous Margot Robbie explains sub-prime mortgages while taking a bubble bath and sipping champagne. Later, chef Anthony Bourdain explains an economic concept by comparing it to fish stew. Selena Gomez does the same thing while watching a blackjack game in Las Vegas.
That's not all the filmmakers have up their sleeves. The narrator of the film has a distinct point of view, and doesn't physically enter the movie for a while. Characters periodically break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. At a key meeting late in the proceedings, eccentric hedge fund manager Mark Baum interrupts a presentation to ask a question, then interrupts it again, only to answer his ringing cellphone and walk out of the room. When it happens, another character looks at us and says, "Mark Baum really did that. When we were in Vegas he did that, he said that, he took that call ... Now you see what I had to deal with." Characters also occasionally point out inaccuracies in the film as well. I loved when that happened.
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You would think that behavior like this would weaken the integrity of the film, but serves to make it stronger. By reinforcing their truths and acknowledging their tricks, McKay and company make the enormity of the madness easier to accept. Never mind that the behavior of the people we follow – both socially and ethically – is as dreadful, or at least nearly as dreadful, as that of the designated villains.
Most importantly, the zippy style, annotations, and tutorials never lessen the film's sense of anger and outrage over what is being done.
The global market collapse is explained by following a group of men who saw what was coming and figured out how to profit from it. First up is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a stock guru who appears to have Asperger's Syndrome. His investigative activities draw the attention of our narrator, banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who ends up teaming with the aforementioned Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to work the system to their gain. Small-time schemers Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Whitrock) also try to get in the game, turning to ex-banker Ben Rickert (bearded Brad Pitt, who looks like Peter Dinklage's brother) to help them appear credible.
The ensemble cast also includes Marisa Tomei, Adepero Oduye, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Melissa Leo, and Karen Gillian. Everybody gives it their all, with Carell and Bale emerging as MVPs.
Adam McKay is best known for his work with Will Ferrell. He directed the Anchorman movies as well as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. I'm not sure whether his everybody-in-the-pool hyper-caffeinated approach to this film is pure calculation or a mix of design and overreaching. Regardless, he has crafted the clearest, most understandable view of the financial collapse I've seen to date. The Big Short is entertaining, horrifying and sort of clear. When it comes to economics, sort of clear is as close as I'm likely to get, so thank you, Mr. McKay