The Big Short is The Wolf of Wall Street with a conscience

Adam McKay's foray into drama is weird, jittery, and mad as hell

Early on, The Big Short reveals its philosophy about keeping its audience engaged and clear on the issues: "It's pretty confusing, right? Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Well, it's supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you just to leave them the fuck alone. So here's Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain." And up pops Robbie, sipping champagne in a candlelit tub, explaining sub-prime mortgages to a jazzily edited sequence.

Viewers who already fully understand the principles behind the economic crisis of 2007 may feel a little patronized by The Big Short, a film that bends over backward to explain it in small, simple words. But to the rest of us, everyone who gets glassy-eyed at talk of collateralized debt obligation and super-senior tranches, director Adam McKay is like that one fun science teacher who illustrated chemical reactions by blowing things up in class. It's a cutesy, gimmicky approach, but it's also friendly to the audience, and appealingly unexpected.

McKay seems like an odd choice to adapt Michael Lewis' best-selling financial world exposé The Big Short: Will Ferrell's frequent writing partner and director on Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, and Anchorman 2, McKay has a long history in improv-heavy comedy film, and something this tightly scripted, reality-focused, and significant seems like a stretch. But his visual looseness and speedy comic beats are a surprisingly perfect approach here. Lewis' books have been adapted before, with Moneyball and The Blind Side, and they're meant to be accessible to lay readers trying to understand how complicated issues make compelling stories. They've just never been this raucous, playful, and irreverent onscreen before.

McKay's film is coated in sugar, but it's a bitter pill to swallow

But while The Big Short is frequently hilarious, it isn't primarily a comedy. The story is about industry-wide corruption and misrepresentation. The financial crisis was enabled by criminal misrepresentation and a lack of oversight, and it resulted in millions of people losing their jobs, homes, and businesses, at staggering taxpayer expense. The film's theatrical trailer makes Big Short look like a star-studded heist movie just short of Ocean's Eleven, with a group of smart scallywags gleefully taking on a greedy banking industry and teaching the fat-cats a thing or two. But there's a deep, seething anger working under the surface of the film, at the laziness, selfishness, weakness, and indifference that drove the collapse. McKay's film is coated in sugar to make it go down easy, but at its center, it's a bitter pill to swallow.

Part of the sugar coating is a cast of familiar faces, inhabiting larger-than-life roles. Christian Bale plays hedge-fund manager Michael Burry as a barefoot, air-drumming metalhead savant who first sees the opportunity no one else sees, to "bet against the American economy" by shorting the housing market. Other characters are more invented: Steve Carell as Mark Baum (based on money manager Steve Eisman) is a bristly asshole who serves as an unlikely audience avatar, investigating the looming crisis stage by stage, and getting angrier and angrier on the world's behalf. Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert (based on capital investor Ben Hockett) as a quietly paranoid outsider who made his millions and got out of the business, but gets pulled back in, heist-movie-style, by a couple of ambitious young up-and-comer traders (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) who need his connections to make their business work. And Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett (based on trader Greg Lippmann), our smug narrator, who often explains what's going on directly to the camera, and uses a customized Jenga set to clearly illustrate what the housing market is about to do. They do look like a heist crew — colorful, prickly, individualistic fast talkers, each with a separate strength — except for the part where they largely aren't working together, or even working with the same intent.

The film works around the housing crisis from a variety of perspectives as all these characters dig into it, and that's part of its accessibility. Still, The Big Short is unmissably about a large, diffuse group of ultra-rich white men making unfathomable amounts of money by outthinking other rich white men. There's no hero, not necessarily even a likable character in the bunch, and the few women scattered through the story — Marisa Tomei as Baum's wife, Melissa Leo as a condescending Standard & Poor rep, Adepero Oduye as Baum's fund head — are hardly more than set dressing. The film barely takes two minutes for its only look at a real victim of all this chicanery, a Hispanic dad who's dutifully paying his rent, but whose landlord is about to lose his home to fraud anyway. The film's anger is real, but its focus is primarily on how that anger touches the privileged people who understand what's going on, and stand to benefit hugely from it, no matter how they feel about it personally.

In that sense, The Big Short feels like a dark mirror to Martin Scorsese's 2013 drama The Wolf Of Wall Street, another jazzy, energetic film about clever financial fraud leading to big profits at the expense of small investors. Both films share that reckless glee at turning a complicated story into a thrill-ride fantasy about beating the market and reaping insane rewards through clever insight. But whereas Wolf only paid lip service to the ramifications of its protagonist's illegal and immoral behavior, before reveling in the power fantasy of that behavior, Short keeps its disapproval clear and present at all times — especially toward the end, as Baum shifts from being an exploratory audience avatar to reminding viewers that they paid the cost of everything they're seeing onscreen. It's all the fun of Wolf without the sticky feeling of compromise afterward; it has an authentic conscience and a belief in its characters' intentions.

The performances in Big Short are unashamedly broad. Gosling's sneering affect as the voice of the film is deliberately off-putting, reminding viewers that even though he's their guide, he isn't on their side. Carell is the closest thing the film has to a hero; Baum is there to profit off the criminality he sees around him, but he at least has the humanity to be sick about it. Carell has had a long run of characters filled with impotent, seething rage, and he throws himself into this one fully. Bale, a tremendously committed actor who's too distinctive to disappear into roles easily, is the biggest surprise, with his wheedling voice, unfocused expression, and gaping mouth. He's effectively disarming and repellent at the same time, like so much about this playful yet purposefully alarming film.

The Big Short

Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures

But the actors take second place to Hank Corwin's fast-paced editing, easily the film's single most valuable asset. It's about as obtrusive as film editing gets, but it gives the film a reckless, nervy energy to go with the characters' discomfiture as they investigate the swaggering real estate agents selling fraudulent mortgages, or the regulators letting the regulatees call the shots. Not all the film's gambits work out: Corwin repeatedly drops in quick flurries of stock footage of ordinary people and items, presumably to remind us all that there's still a world outside of Wall Street, and that the vast numbers tossed around by these suits and scruffy prognosticators mean something to real, relatable people. The tactic is more distraction and visual noise than meaningful theme.

And a repeated tactic in McKay and Charles Randolph's script, which has characters turning to the camera to debunk the onscreen version of events, is amusing enough. But it's also baffling. When Vennett lies about the origin of his brilliant Chinese analyst during a meeting, and the analyst reveals the lies in an audience aside, it's a smart moment that uncovers something about Vennett's motormouthed character. But when the young investors stop a particularly theatrical scene to explain that reality was nothing like what we're seeing onscreen, and then go back to the theatrical version, it feels like McKay doesn't know whether he wants to prioritize authenticity or entertainment. Yes, he's establishing a trust level by revealing the inescapable synthetic nature of the screen. But by continuing the little ruse after undermining it, he makes any pretense of honesty seem hypocritical.

Like Wolf Of Wall Street, or the banking industry in general, The Big Short can't entirely be trusted to tell the truth, or to have the audience's best interests at heart. It's a slick three-ring circus of a film, a showy, flashy experience that has to constantly balance its nervy, excitable aesthetics with the much duller and more depressing truth. Inevitably, it reduces its victims to numbers. But like that sly science teacher who's always ready to bust out the showy chemical reactions, McKay has an actual interest in teaching, and a good chance of sneaking some education in among the explosions.