Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailer for The Big Short contains what must have been the pitch: “From Adam McKay, the guy who brought you Talladaga Nights, Step Brothers, and Anchorman 2, comes a sobering look at… the financial crisis of 2008? What?” It’s essentially a more honest Michael Moore documentary – freewheeling, anything-plus-the-kitchen-sink, righteously outraged. Mostly it’s a mess, although sometimes it’s also strangely entertaining. I doubt anybody who watches will learn much, despite what McKay insists were his best efforts. (The end credits sequence from McKay’s The Other Guys, which featured an out-of-the-blue primer on financial misdeeds, was more lucid.)
The Big Short is made in a style and tenor perfect for people who are calling Obama the Worst President Ever. Ironically, the only credible basis for that assertion is that the bankers who created the financial collapse of 2008 were not only rescued, not only stayed out of jail, but paid themselves bonuses with the bailout money. Of course, if you think Obama blew that call, you also have to follow the trail back to Reagan’s deregulation in the 1980s (file under: Memes Nobody is Making.) Savings and Loan, Black Monday, Subprime Mortgages… Let the bankers make their own rules and keep the government out of it! No wonder young people are turning out for Bernie Sanders – the ones telling them socialism will never work are the same people who didn’t see any of the earlier disasters coming.
Adam McKay keeps the sloppy comedy and slapdash direction from his earlier hits and slathers it all over Michael Lewis’ (excellent) book, hoping to entertain people who know nothing (and don’t really want to know anything) about housing bubbles or CDO’s. When the writers need to explain something, they drop in stars Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez for cameos, who talk directly to the camera in a grating “Financial Crisis for Dummies” style.
The problem is that Lewis’ real-life characters are so unbelievably colorful, and their story is packed with so much “I can’t believe it happened that way” serendipity, that it overshadows the sobering examination of the financial crisis McKay also wants to tell. I’m not absolutely sure the two are mutually exclusive, but I am sure McKay isn’t the right director for the job. (He frequently has characters turn to the camera and say things like, “This actually happened.”) Compounding the problem are Christian Bale and Steve Carell, neither of whom got the memo that they were in a slick Hollywood comedy. They’re so good in their roles you wish a better writer/director could have shaped a truly great movie around them. Brad Pitt also has a minor part, which (like his cameo in 12 Years a Slave) is grounded and nicely self-effacing.
The Big Short can be considered, perhaps, a noble failure. The story is fabulous, and the real-life framework of the housing bubble and subprime mortgage crisis isn’t well understood by most people, already being forgotten as we hurl toward the next disaster. Although it seems like I’m writing this a lot lately, the book is better. Please read The Big Short (and then read Lewis’ Flash Boys, and after that Liar’s Poker.)