The Big Short is less a movie and more of an angry scream.
The movie is about the housing crisis bubble popping in 2008, where we follow the story of Michael Burry (Christian Bale) who discovers the coming financial doom and decides to short sell housing bonds. I am no financial expert, but apparently its like taking insurance on a bond going bad. If it crashes then you score big. The film also follows Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) a righteously angry stock broker who is offered a chance to get in on the big short by Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling), a greedy Gordon Gecko type. Whereas Burry figures out the bubble is going to pop because of the statistical markers, Baum and his team do the legwork and see the corruption and fraud at every level. On top of that we follow Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who also get in on the big short and use their connections to money-man turned hippie Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
If that sounds confusing, it is.
To make matters worse, none of the stories merge. It's like writer/director Adam McKay decided to make three separate movies at once. The Baum story is the central one with other ones acting as needless complications. In fact I would go so far as to say that after Burry's scenes in the first act, he adds nothing really to the story. And I really wish they would have cut the Geller/Shipley part completely, because it felt like it was only there to give Brad Pitt something to do. Flannery O'Connor wrote a book titled Everything That Rises Must Converge. The problem with this movie is that none of the stories rise to anything special and so never converge.
McKay's take on the causes of the financial crisis are a bit one-sided and he leaves out a number of important contributing factors. But that, in and of itself, does not hurt the narrative. What does hurt it is his innability to take this complicated story and streamline it effectively.
There is an art in making the complex understandable. This does not mean "dumbing down" the material. But a good storyteller will be able to use strong, tangible analogies or clear explanations in order for his audience to grasp the mechanics. Christopher Nolan is someone who has this ability. McKay does not. In fact, he has so little confidence in his own ability to let his story explain the complexity of the financial realities that he does these strange digressions where celebrities like Margot Robbie in a bathtub or Selena Gomez in a casino talk directly to the audience and give mini-tutorials on the topics at hand.
In fact, other characters break the fourth wall throughout the movie, which flies directly against McKay's entire directing style with the hand-held, cinema-verite look. He wants you to feel like you are watching a documentary, but then he will completely undo the illusion by having his characters look you in the eye and admit what you are seeing is inaccurate.
As I've written in an earlier post, "Adam McKay is used to doing silly comedies, but The Big Short is a kind of serious tragedy. But he has so little confidence in his ability to tell a serious story. He needlessly lingers and bores the audience with his shots. And he consistently does these strange inserts, as if cutting away will give greater emotional or story weight. For example, he likes to show off his character's bookshelves as if to scream at you "These guys are SMART!"
McKay wants to convince you that this is a serious movie and above all a SMART movie. Never mind the fact that in an early scene that takes place in 2006, there are clearly advertisements for a television show that debuted in 2015 (I know this is an unfair nitpick, but I would be more forgiving if McKay was not constantly wanting me to notice the backgrounds). But instead the movie feels like a first-year college freshmen come home for Christmas and using big words to impress his high school friends.
The performances are, for the most part, fine. Bale's character is difficult to connect with, although that is what he tells us throughout the film. Gosling's character lacks any depth, but he is long on charm and charisma. Carell makes his Baum to mannered in voice and gesture, but when he has to do moments of intense emotionality, he really delivers.
And with all the recent talk of how women actress are not given their due, this movie will do nothing to help that. Academy Award winners Marissa Tomei and Melissa Leo, as well as the fantastic Karen Gillan, were relegated to nothing more than glorified cameos. I would be surprised if the entire screen time of all three actresses combined was more than five minutes.
Thematically, the movie is a passionate indignant of greed at every level of our society. The more that Baum plumbs the depths of this disaster the more he sees senseless avarice seep into all of our financial and government institutions. As a Catholic, I have to applaud the fact that McKay makes greed ugly and you can feel his palpable rage on the screen. He does wrap this message in a movie with a lot of foul language and one unnecessarily gratuitous scene at a strip club. But it is hard to argue with McKay's point that if given the opportunity, greedy men and women will ruin their own country in exchange for their own financial profit.
But this point would have been more effectively made if it was in a better movie.
2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars