Hey, remember 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street? Want to watch a shorter, lower-quality version? Well, have I got a movie for you!
The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, is about the investors who predicted and profited from the 2007 housing market collapse, hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), money manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell, based on the real life Steve Eisman) and his team, Cornwall Capitol founder Jaime Shipley (Finn Wittrock, based on the real life Jamie Mai) and Deutsche Bank trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, based on the real life Greg Lippman), who narrates. The movie depicts them essentially inventing a new kind of deal so they could short on this market, as banks were so confident in the mortgage bundles they didn’t have a method to invest in their failure.
Stylistically, The Big Short is a knockoff of both The Wolf of Wall Street and of Scorsese’s work in general. The juke-box musical playing in the background, the smash cuts and freeze frames, the characters stopping in the middle of a scene to talk directly to the camera — all Scorsese hallmarks, and all rampant throughout the movie. It’s normally preferable for a director to combine several influences into a new style all his own, but writer/director Adam McKay’s list of previous hallmarks reads, “Cast Will Ferrell and hope,” so this is a big step up.
The differences are few, with varying significance. The Big Short is about the most recent economic collapse, one that the world is still kind of reeling from but may not fully understand. The movie goes to great length to explain the minutia of the irresponsible and, in some cases, illegal behavior that lead to the collapse. At points, Vennett introduces Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or some other celebrity to explain exactly what’s going on, and if it happened more than three times and started to take over the movie, it would have worked, but unfortunately, the movie gets bogged down in the same jargon that keeps Americans from really understanding finance in real life. It almost turns into a Shakespearean drama in that way, where you can’t really understand what they’re saying unless you’ve had previous experience with the script, and even then you’re relying on acting and direction to kind of get a vague sense of whether a good thing or a bad thing just happened.
This really begins to hurt the movie when it tries to build tension in the second act. Basically, mortgage clusters begin to default, but their credit ratings remain high, leaving all the main characters looking like they’re going to lose this massive gamble they’ve made because of credit ratings fraud. All it really amounts to is an extended lull in the movie’s pace.
The performances are pretty OK. Bale is the most decorated member of the all-star cast. He has a reputation for only taking on roles he feels will really challenge him, and he’s up to the task with Burry, a money manager with Asperger’s Syndrome who, more than simply having a communication disorder, seems to have given up on overcoming it. It’s a clever and subtle performance, but most of the screentime gets eaten up by Carell as the rage-driven Baum. The fact that Carell is an exceptional actor no longer takes anyone by surprise, and his exceptional performance is understated. Gosling is good, and Brad Pitt, who also produces, is pushed aside.
The biggest problem with The Big Short is an inconsistent tone. What starts as a happy, cathartic romp about the guys who got over on the bankers who caused the biggest recession in almost a century backs off as it goes on, afraid for its characters to seem happy about profiting from an event that left millions homeless. In the end, it even tries to make viewers afraid about the coming water wars. The Big Short remains disturbing enough simply with its plot, and gets a lot weaker when it loses the clash between plot and tone. A lot of people would probably enjoy it more to live out the fantasy of being these guys, who won when the entire rest of the world lost, and get to see them rub it in the big bankers’ faces.
Then again, a lot of people would probably enjoy it more to just rewatch The Wolf of Wall Street, a far superior film.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. My love for you is like a crossword puzzle that’s already been filled out. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.