We see it all the time with comedic actors: All of a sudden they’re starring in a drama, often in an attempt to gain some sort of perceived lack of respect. We don’t see it quite as often with comedic directors: The Farrelly brothers have yet to release a solemn meditation on death. Judd Apatow will touch on dramatic beats, but he hasn’t directed a movie about the NSA’s surveillance program.
And yet here’s Adam McKay, the former Saturday Night Live head writer – best known for directing two Anchorman movies, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys – directing a movie about one of the biggest financial collapses in history.
“With Adam, it was because he was obsessed with this,” Christian Bale told me, in a yet-to-publish interview (which will run closer to the film’s December 11 release). “In a very positive manner: Just absolutely obsessed, disgusted with it.” This seems like a good reason to do a movie. Much better than, “I just wanted to try something different.” As it turns out, Adam McKay, the director of Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, is the perfect person to lead us through the always confusing world of financial collapse and The Big Short is one of the best films of the year.
There’s a moment about 20 minutes into The Big Short where I, as an audience member, started thinking, I like this movie, but I have no idea what any of these people are talking about. This is about the same time that slick huckster Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) breaks the fourth wall, telling the audience, “I bet you have no idea what any of this means.” He concedes we all probably have a vague idea of why the economy collapsed in 2008, enough to make us look smart in a conversation, but we really don’t know what these investment and banking terms really mean. That they are all invented by Wall Street types to make it seem like they are the only people on the planet who could possibly to this job and they are meant to confuse us.
It’s at this point that Vennett introduces Margot Robbie, who is playing Margot Robbie, sitting in a bubble bath. She is here to explain everything in layman’s terms. This is a neat trick and is repeated with other famous people throughout the movie.
Speaking of neat tricks: The Big Short — adapted from Moneyball author Michael Lewis’ account of the collapse — is one of the most self-aware movies I’ve seen. I was watching a scene thinking, There’s no way it went down like that in real life. As soon as I thought that, a character broke the fourth wall and admited it didn’t go down like this. Later, when something absurd happens, a character will break the fourth wall again and tell us that, yes, this actually happened as it’s portrayed in the film. The Big Short is always one step ahead of us, just like its characters are always one step ahead of the market crash.
Ah, yes, our characters: They’re people we find ourselves sort of rooting for, even though they are all benefiting from the economic downfall of millions of people. The Big Short plays like a heist movie, with three separate teams all trying to make billions on the knowledge that the housing market – built on the backs of subprime loans (i.e. shit loans) – will start collapsing when the initial low interest rates start to skyrocket, meaning people won’t be able to pay their mortgages, meaning the banks will default, meaning the world economy collapses.
Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a genius-savant who is the first person to realize this is going to happen. He convinces his firm to “short” (basically betting something will fail) the housing market, something banks didn’t even do at the time because no one in their right mind would short something as sure of a deal as the housing market. Bale works on his own and spends most of the movie locked in his office listening to death metal. It’s a testament to just how good of an actor Bale is that he made sitting in an office, listening to death metal interesting.
Gosling’s Vennett and Steve Carell’s Mark Baum form a loose alliance after Vennett brings this information to Baum’s team. After Baum vets the information by traveling to Florida and seeing first-hand who is living in these mansions, he agrees to invest. This sets Baum off on a crusade against the bullshit that drives our economy, even though he’s about to benefit from its stupidity and/or disregard. This is Carell’s best role to date.
The last team is made up of two young investors, Jamie and Charlie (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro), who long to be “big shots,” and stumble upon this information. Of course, they don’t know exactly what to do with it, so they drag in the retired and mostly unwilling Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to guide them.
These three teams work independently of each other, which sets off a winding, back-and-forth narrative that plays more like a crime caper than the destruction of all of our lives. The Big Short is so thrilling and legitimately funny, I tended to forget what the real-life stakes were. There’s a scene when young Jamie and Charlie realize they’re about to become filthy rich and they begin to celebrate. Bratt Pitt’s Ben scolds them … really lays into the two for celebrating what will be the demise of so many people’s lives. He tells the two what the death rate is of people who are unemployed. This is The Big Short being self-aware again, this is Brad Pitt yelling at me, telling me that it’s okay to enjoy this movie, but don’t you dare root for these people.
If only the people actually in charge of our economy were this self-aware. If only Brad Pitt could be there to yell at them, too.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.