The Big Short’ turns the financial crisis into comedy

The Big Short is an essay disguised as a narrative.

Three stars

The Big Short Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling. Directed by Adam McKay. Rated R. Now playing.

When the American housing market collapsed in 2008, triggering a global recession, few people genuinely understood what had happened. Just the words “subprime mortgage” could make your eyes glaze over. The Big Short, a new film adapted from Michael Lewis’ best-selling book, attempts to explain how everything went south by looking at the handful of Wall Street guys who foresaw the disaster and profited from it. In many hands, the result would have been a tract. Because The Big Short was directed by comedy specialist Adam McKay (both Anchorman films, Talladega Nights, The Other Guys), however, it actually goes too far in the opposite direction, working overtime to make complex financial concepts entertaining.

The film’s first-rate ensemble cast struggles a bit, because each actor is playing not so much a character as an expository function. Christian Bale has it roughest, since he’s playing Michael Burry, the one person from Lewis’ book whose identity hasn’t been changed; the real Burry is a major-league eccentric, and Bale leans hard on the man’s lack of social skills, allowing his peculiar genius—he was arguably the first person to recognize that the housing market was a bubble about to burst—to recede into the background. Other players include irascible hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who serves as the movie’s angry moral conscience; super-slick investment banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who narrates; and a semi-retired financial guru named Ben Rickert, played for no very good reason by a nearly comatose Brad Pitt.

McKay, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Randolph, is terrified that viewers might be confused or bored, so he keeps stopping the film to have guest celebrities (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez) define terms like “collateralized debt obligation” directly to the camera—a ploy that’s funny at first but soon begins to feel condescending. The Big Short does an admirable job of laying out, step by step, the series of greedy decisions that wound up ruining so many lives, and one can empathize with its sense of outrage that those responsible were rewarded rather than punished. But it’s an essay cleverly disguised as a narrative. The human beings in it feel superfluous.

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