Review: 'The Big Short' is a lighthearted look at a dire situation


“The Big Short” is an infuriating movie. Not because it’s poorly made but because it is so well made.

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It takes years of banking bafflegab and distils it down to the essence in what may be the funniest, smartest and most maddening look at why America’s housing market crashed in 2008.

The films opens with a famous Mark Twain quote, “I’t ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” The quote is a bit of a Mobius strip but so is the story “The Big Short” is trying to tell.

Based on Michael Lewis‘ nonfiction best-seller of the same name, the film presents a cavalcade of facts and information formed into a story about how four investment-bankers—played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro—saw the financial meltdown coming when no one else did. Taking on the arrogance of Wall Street’s old boy network, they bet against the American economy and, in the process, expose an unprecedented level of financial criminality.

“The Big Short” is a lighthearted look at a dire situation. Call it a dramedy. Director Adam McKay is best known for making movies like “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” “The Other Guys,” “Step Brothers,” so he knows how to milk a laugh out of a scene. He also knows that the level of understanding the viewer needs to get why the housing bubble burst is above the level of most MBAs.

The movie explains that Wall Street likes to use confusing terms to make you think only they can understand what they do. “It's like 2+2 = fish,” says one banker, expressing disbelief at the financial manipulations used by the big banks. To make the financial mumbo-jumbo sexy the McKay uses a variety of tricks, including cutting to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining subprime loans in plain language. It’s a spoonful of sugar to help the expositional medicine go down. From the simple—one loan officer calls his clients “Ninjas, no income, no job.”—to the incredibly complex world of CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) “The Big Short” doesn’t shy away from tackling complex financial transactions but it never feels dry or forced. McKay is a showman, and layers the film with fourth-wall-breaking celebrity cameos and concise social commentary woven into the drama.

A great scene of Goldman Sachs executives laughing at Dr. Michael Burry’s (Christian Bale) $100 million investment is cut into a rap video celebrating excess. In one wordless scene McKay illustrates the arrogance of the bankers in the days before the rug was pulled out from underneath them.

Subtle it's not, but the director’s use of pop culture images and music to set the scene goes a long way to establish a time, place and tone.

“The Big Short” features strong performances—Bale stretches in ways we haven't seen from him before—but it is the film’s unflinching depiction of unbridled greed that will resonate.


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