Up until now, the most serious film on Adam McKay’s résumé as a director might well have been Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. That, or Talladega Nights. Honestly, it’s a toss-up. All of which is to say, he might have been the least likely candidate in Hollywood to make a brainy, bruise-black satire of America’s 2008 mortgage crisis. But made it, he has. Like Rahmin Bahrani’s more sober 99 Homes in September, McKay’s The Big Short attempts to explain how the seemingly rock-solid U.S. housing market went from solid and secure to nosebleed-inducingly worthless overnight. The message of The Big Short is that the doomsday omens were there to see… but no one wanted to see them.
Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction bestseller, the film follows a small group of contrarian Cassandras who bet against the housing bubble just as it was about to burst. As our semi-trustworthy slickster narrator, Ryan Gosling oozes smarm and smartass charm, leading viewers through the ins and outs of a game that’s always been rigged against regular, hardworking folks. There’s also Christian Bale as a socially awkward, speed metal-loving doctor-turned-money manager who was the first skeptic to sniff out the house of cards the market was built on. Then there’s Steve Carell as a loud, misanthropic hedge fund honcho who bet the farm on bad debt. And finally, Finn Wittrock and John Magaro as the small fish swimming against Wall Street’s herd-minded sharks. None of these people are very easy to root for, especially since they stood to make millions off of the absolute detonation of the American economy. But when you stop and think about it, their only real crime was profiting off of a crooked system that was going belly up anyhow.
McKay’s film weaves these outsized characters together with snappy effortlessness. And whenever they’re against-the-grain schemes start to get to the point of becoming too arcane or Byzantine, the director playfully breaks the fourth wall to allow the audience to catch up. For example, when all of the script’s talk about collateralized-debt obligations gets confusing, the film might cut to, say, Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table to help explain things. You can’t take the merry prankster out of the man.
I suppose you could call The Big Short a comedy. It’s very, very funny. But it’s also a tragedy. Behind every easy drive-by laugh is a sincere holler of outrage. Deep down, McKay couldn’t be more serious about his film’s message, which is this: Anyone who ever bought into the version of the American Dream that included their own home (with or without a white picket fence out front) was played for a sucker by the banks, the regulators, and the government who all seemed to interpret capitalism as license to rob people blind.
The Big Short has such a wicked, rat-a-tat energy that by the time it was over, I felt like I’d just seen the movie that The Wolf of Wall Street wanted to be. McKay deserves a lot of credit for making it, and he also deserves to be taken seriously now as a filmmaker. Because with The Big Short, he’s graduated from wiseass to wise man. A