Adam McKay is not the filmmaker to give us a sober, lucid account of the financial crisis of the mid-2000s, and for a while, he seems to understand that in The Big Short, an ingratiating but often quite entertaining adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book of the same name. McKay can’t even dream of approaching the freewheeling energy of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street or the way that film’s anarchic satire suddenly went for blood, especially in its chilling final shot.
McKay’s examination of wealthy vultures bears some superficial similarities to Wolf, but its DNA is much closer to his bro-y man-children comedies, despite its aspirations toward drama. McKay can’t even resist sticking in a segment from his Funny or Die short “The Landlord,” where Will Ferrell’s daughter berates him about rent money, part of one of many mass-media collages that McKay uses as interstitials. His other trick is getting celebrities to star as themselves to explain complicated financial concepts, so prepare to be condescended to by Margot Robbie in a bathtub defining subprime mortgages and Selena Gomez playing blackjack to illustrate synthetic CDOs.
When McKay is able to resist attempting satire, he’s actually assembled an engaging re-creation of the massive hubris and shameless lawbreaking that precipitated a devastating housing bubble. A spray-tanned Ryan Gosling sort-of narrates the proceedings in a part you’ll swear was meant for Ryan Reynolds, but the real centerpieces are Christian Bale as savant hedge-fund manager Michael Burry and Steve Carell as the fictional Mark Baum, based on the real-life Steve Eisman. Both are ahead of the curve in realizing there’s money to be made in betting against the supposedly unassailable housing market — Burry’s pursuit is mostly passionless number-crunching, but Baum has a personal vendetta, fueled by the suicide of his banker brother.
Everyone wears bad wigs and speechifies occasionally, and there’s plenty of fun to be had at the expense of the rampant amorality, like Max Greenfield’s pompous Miami real estate agent or Karen Gillan’s SEC-employee-turned-prospective-banker. McKay and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s handheld, zoom-happy aesthetic doesn’t lend the film verité credibility so much as keep the increasingly repetitive plot hopping along, but it works.
In the end though, McKay can’t help but grasp for a damning statement, and he turns to Brad Pitt, whose former banker helps John Magaro and Finn Wittrock’s upstarts get an in to the credit default swap game — but he’s not happy about it. Essentially ignoring the moral implications of the actions of any individual, McKay lashes out at “the system” for creating the crisis, but in a film that struggles to delve past shallow depictions of an admittedly exceptionally thorny subject, it sure feels unearned.
The Big Short opens in limited release this weekend before expanding wide on Dec. 23.