Director Adam McKay steps outside of his cinematic comfort zone and delivers one of the great, last minute movie surprises of 2015. McKay, the director of “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers” and (one of the funniest movies of the past ten years) “The Other Guys” has made a serio-comic adaptation of Michael Lewis’ nonfiction 2010 book, “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine.” This is the story of how four Wall Street underdogs anticipated the 2008 financial/ housing market crash and both benefitted from and escaped the massive fall-out that came after. We meet four unusual and unexpectedly brilliant men: an eccentric, one eyed loner (Christian Bale), a wealthy businessman with an explosive temper (Steve Carrell), a private, fearful outsider who has seen it all (Brad Pitt) and a smug but straight-shooter suit (Ryan Gosling) who serves as the film’s narrator. These characters present, in ways both loaded with technical data and accessible language, what went down and how it led to the bailout.
Everything about “The Big Short” feels timely: the snarky dialog, slick filmmaking, defiant attitude of the characters and the aggressive (but always coherent) editing. There’s even a moment where Brad Pitt mocks Monsanto.
It’s also overlong, didactic and overstuffed. The characters are compelling but most of them are established in a single mode and are stuck playing that one note for the film’s entirety. While every scene serves a purpose and none of this is ever dull, this could have been much tighter.
Bale’s performance is the one that holds the film together and is among the best he’s given. Bale has never done a comedy (outside of the disturbing but potently satirical “American Psycho”), which makes his portrayal an event for his fans. There is both heart and eccentric innovation in Bale’s work that suggests the sort of turn Christopher Walken might have given in his prime.
Pitt excels in yet another great supporting role, which has become a specialty of his (he may be a gigantic movie star but he’s a generous ensemble player). Carrell’s turn teeters between farcical and tragic; he’s in fine form, though this isn’t in the same league as his “Foxcatcher” triumph. Gosling provides both the continuous narration and pessimistic attitude that sets the tone. Melissa Leo has a great single scene cameo and it’s nice to see the talented, up and coming Adepero Aduye excel in a key supporting turn. Only Marisa Tomei is wasted in an underwritten role as Carrell’s wife.
The moments where the characters break the fourth wall, address the audience directly and, on occasion, invite celebrity guests to explain the financial jargon is both clever and condescending. While the characters can be smug, there is a moral center here and a cautionary note on how cloaking oneself in greed and entitlement can’t save anyone from moral and commercial bankruptcy. “The Wolf of Wall Street” may be rowdier but shares the concept of white collar, morally dubious young men who believe there are no consequences for taking advantage of the system.
While the men onscreen are colorful, their financial acumen and ability to accurately foresee what was coming visibly takes a toll on them. By the film’s end, the four leads all appear haunted by the catastrophe they avoided and the multitudes of people who emerged jobless, broke and ruined.
McKay’s playful, sometimes excessive approach resembles what an episode of “The Daily Show” would look like if directed by Oliver Stone. While this is certainly a comedy, the seriousness of the subject matter is never lost to the broader moments. “The Big Short” is overly caffeinated and a bit unruly, though sometimes it offers too much of a good thing.