The Big Short

It's becoming a habit, but I'd like to start this review with a little anecdote: In 2010, my friend Bill Lebeda at Picture Mill hired me to research and write some statistics for the end credit sequence of the Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg comedy The Other Guys, directed by Adam McKay. (Bill does the titles for all of McKay's movies.) As the comedy sort of involved a Bernie Madoff-like Ponzi schemer, the statistics were designed to reflect not only Madoff's excesses, but recent financial swindles in general. (You can watch the sequence here.)

Our – I can say "our" here, right? – credit sequence was a hit, so much that A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote, "The closing credit sequence is, in effect, a tease for a movie quite different from the one that has just concluded.... Looking at these shocking numbers in isolation, you might be tempted to think that you had just watched an angry populist satire skewering the powerful and the privileged."

Now, I'm not saying that our Other Guys credits inspired McKay to actually go out and make that angry populist satire, but The Big Short does seem like a natural progression of those credits. I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Anyway, The Big Short is a lightning-paced, brainy adaptation of Michael Lewis' nonfiction book of the same title. In a nutshell, it's about the handful of oddballs working on the fringes of Wall Street who, in 2005, came to believe that the booming housing market was built on a fraudulent system of loans that would eventually collapse... and so they bet against the market. ("Shorting" it, in Wall Street terms.) In 2008, of course, those oddballs were proven to be correct.

The 2008 financial crisis is a big, messy, confusing beast, so it's to McKay's credit that he and his cowriter Charles Randolph were able to take Lewis' book (which I haven't read) and distill the essence of what happened in ways that ordinary Americans can comprehend. There were still a few things that flew over my head, and I already had the basic gist of what went wrong, but The Big Short expertly explains a lot, while reminding you that the banks at the heart of the crisis got off all too easy.

Although they almost never share the screen, the film's ensemble players, led by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, convince as their real-life counterparts. McKay's gimmick of using direct-camera addresses –including surprising educational cameos from unlikely celebrities – could be precious or overly Scorsese-ish, but they're not. In fact, what's truly remarkable is McKay's inventive style. This is his first feature that isn't a goofy Will Ferrell comedy, and he seems liberated. He retains his comic timing but, free of the antics of his regulars (Ferrell, John C. Reilly, et al), shows surprising confidence in telling a serious story.