“People hate to think about bad things happening so they always underestimate their likelihood.”
If one were to write a list of the filmmakers most likely to cover the US’s great financial collapse of 2008, writer/director Adam McKay wouldn’t even be in the running. After all, we’re talking about the man behind Anchorman and Step Brothers. Those are excellent absurdist comedies to be sure and feature a surprising intelligence beneath their delightful stupidity. Yet, that wouldn’t necessarily suggest McKay was the guy who could sum up the mortgage crisis in a gut punch prestige picture (especially since his attempts to cram commentary about the issue into his buddy cop comedy The Other Guys were awkward at best). Yet, it’s precisely the fact that McKay’s tone is so oddly suited to the material that made The Big Short such a wonderful awards season surprise. The filmmaker didn’t abandoned his wildest comedic tendencies to make a sad clown bit of Oscar bait. Nope, instead he made an honest and uncomfortable drama about the horrible slice of US history that’s sweetened by his gifts for oddball comedic digressions
The strange story starts with its strangest man. Christian Bale plays a heavy metal loving PHD candidate with a variety of mental health issues. He was also a financial and mathematical genius who foresaw the collapse of the housing market years in advance. The details are explained, but McKay knows it’s not easy to sit through that sort of thing, so he hilariously details all of the scams and bad economics behind the story through surreal cutaways in which Margot Robbie in a bathtub or Anthony Bourdain filleting fish dole out the vital info. The important detail is that when Bale’s character foresaw the collapse, he found a way to bet on it. Financial institutions were more than happy to take his crazy bet since they couldn’t imagine the housing market crashing. Ryan Gosling narrates as a sleazeball in a suit who overheard Bale’s pitch and spread it to a hedge fund manager just cynical enough to believe in the cause (Steve Carell). On top of that, a pair of small time kids looking to get into the game (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) also stumbled onto the plan and hopped on board with the help of their Yoda-esque retired financial guru neighbour (Brad Pitt). Together these teams of oddballs and outcasts beat the system by betting on greed and made billions off of a tragedy.
So, it’s an odd story. Odd enough that it had to be true and one that was fascinating for Adam McKay to tell. It’s deeply satirical, cynical stuff. Yet also the sort of thing that could have easily been tossed off as po-faced drama not nearly as effective as The Big Short. What McKay ingeniously did was tell this strange, spiralling story in the ramshackle style of his contemporary comedies. There’s a delicious irony to this tale. Our heroes might have caught the corruption, but since they knew it was impossible to fix the problem in the irrational world of filthy finance, they embraced their own special brand of dirty pool instead. It’s ugly stuff, but ugly stuff that’s harshest on the real unseen villains who laid the tracks. The movie’s protagonists are at least acting slimy on the right side of a moral cause.
The performances are delightful, topped by Bale’s straight-laced nut who earns laughs through a mixture of mathematic genius and complete social incompetence. Gosling puts his onscreen charisma to the ultimate test by playing the arguably the most reprehensible character who is also an amusing narrator. Steve Carell continues his unexpected transition into drama by playing a mess of a man whose lifetime spent loathing his bosses and colleagues finally pays off. The crew are all wonderfully strange, crafted well by McKay’s script and beautifully portrayed by a number of famous faces. The only real problem is that McKay does balk slightly in letting his characters come off as the lesser of competing evils. Too often he cuts away from his absurdist economic narrative to provide dramatic backstory for several characters that feels a little tacked on. Other characters remain frustratingly opaque (particularly the one played by Brad Pitt that needed that movie star presence to have any human presence at all). The Big Short spirals off into so many strange directions at once that it’s almost inevitable that some of them are dead ends. That’s the film’s biggest weakness and strength.
If nothing else, you’ve got to give Adam McKay and co. credit for delivering a completely unique movie within the Hollywood system. Martin Scorsese might have made a masterpiece about corporate crime in The Wolf Of Wall Street, but there needed to be a movie specifically about the 2008 mortgage crisis because it was such a disgusting event that white collar criminals got away with thanks to their scams being too confusing for most folks to grasp. McKay has made a movie just as spiralling, strange, frustrating, funny, and tragic as his subject. That he did so through satire and absurdism is both an unexpected treat and appropriate to the insanity of the topic. Sure, The Big Short sputters around in the midst of all it’s grand comedic experiments and quite often proves to be frustrating. However, the pleasures of the film run deep and it’s importance as a cultural artifact is huge. If nothing else, there’s certainly never been another movie quite like The Big Short. But if the financial world continues down the self-destructive path it’s on, there might have to be another. Thankfully McKay now has the practice and the template to work his cynically hilarious and enlightening magic once more once he’s sadly needed again.
Unsurprisingly, Paramount treated their release of The Big Short with the prestige they hoped the film would attain during awards season. The HD transfer is crisp with deep detail and the sound mix is clear and varied. That said, it’s a very much a small dialogue-driven character piece, so don’t expect anything resembling earth-shattering in a technical presentation.
The special features section is surprisingly robust for a small studio release. Essentially, there’s an hour-long documentary about the making of the feature split up into five bite sized featurettes.
The first mini-doc focuses on the cast and gives an idea of why these particular famous faces were chosen, which is pretty dry beyond a little insight into Christian Bale’s process. Next up is a 10-minute featurette about Adam McKay and his fascination with the material. It’s an interesting exploration of McKay’s 4th wall breaking and use of improvisation though doesn’t scratch too deeply behind the surface (despite some priceless footage of him throwing new lines at his cast on set). The next feature dips into describing the characters and it’s fine, but misses a big opportunity by not interviewing any of the real people. Following that up is a featurette about the housing bubble that covers that material in quite a bit of detail that’s a satisfying Coles Notes for anyone confused by the subject matter of the movie (or anyone who feels like getting depressed about the state of the world). Finally there’s a mini-doc about the production of the movie, specifically discussing the challenges of the recent period setting and the value of shooting on film that should delight all the celluloid holdouts and obsessives.
5 deleted scenes are included that were all clearly cut for a reason, but are worth a peak for the curious: especially an abandoned subplot about Christian Bale’s learning about Asperger’s Syndrome through his son’s diagnosis. And that’s it. Not a bad crop of special features at all. Sure, it would have been nice to have a commentary track (McKay is a master of those) or a little more input from the actual people that the film is based on, but hey! You can’t have everything.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
This is a damn good Blu-ray for easily one of the best films of 2015, so just go buy it already.