How do you make investment banking and money management a cinematically exciting experience? Well, you could either take the Scorsese route and focus the movie on drugs and parties, or the Oliver Stone route and focus on characters and corruption. “The Big Short”, director Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ excellent 2010 novel, decides to split the difference. McKay’s depiction of Wall Street’s apocalypse during 2007-08 is filled with funny moments, celebrities and party scenes, but also takes the responsibility of informing the viewer on mechanics of asset-backed securities and CDOs. Overall, the film succeeds in both respects and manages to keep viewers entertained and give a fairly accurate picture of the financial crisis, even if the two goals occasionally trip over each other. Also, if you haven’t watched it, I will say there are some minor spoilers ahead, but I’m assume anyone over the age of 10 or watched the trailer knows that the global financial system collapses in the end, so I’m not spoiling much.
The film is like “Moneyball”, another Michael Lewis film adaptation, in that it focuses on the unconventional wisdom of a select few while the sheeplike followers of the system pay no attention. This is Michael Lewis’ main theme throughout his works, and it continues to work in cinematic adaptations. The film starts off with a narrated voiceover to explain some backstory, and the audience quickly has to get used to frequent breaking of the fourth wall as the filmmakers attempt to explain the insanely complex fiasco that ensues. The constant Pythonesque fourth wall destruction is funny at times, like in a scene in which an Asian “quant” humorously comments on his bosses’ usage of stereotypes, but it also gets a bit tiresome. The celebrity explanations of complex financial instruments are also a mixed bag. The first scene with the hot tub was completely off-putting when it came on screen, and you can tell McKay was trying to feed into the comically gratuitous “Wolf of Wall Street” ideas early in the movie.
In fact, the whole film is a sobering process, as the comedy levels and fun of the early part of the movie decline like the value of the banks’ subprime mortgage investments. Steve Carrell and his team’s comedic trip to Miami in the early part of the film seems distant and trivialized by the depressing ending. The movie’s comedy actively makes fun of the past, and the film portrays the blissful mid-2000s as laughably quaint. The financial prosperity of the times is a complete fantasy, and the film uses that to its advantage. Of course, when the hammer falls, Brad Pitt is there to dramatically correct the atmosphere to one of somber apocalypse, but the movie does keep itself entertaining.
I’ve read The Big Short by Michael Lewis, and the movie does a great job of making some of the characters feel real, while others are somewhat mismanaged. Steve Carrell’s performance as Mark Baum (an analogue to Steve Eisman in the novel) is over-the-top, but the real-life person he portrays is also over the top. Ryan Gosling does a great job nailing the sleaziness of Jared Vennett, the fake Gregg Lippmman character who helps build the credit default swap market. The film’s weakest character is actually Dr. Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale, who is basically a cardboard cut-out of his real self. In the novel, Burry is portrayed with some quirks that are ironed out, but the film version plays up his oddities to such an absurd amount that the viewer starts to lose faith in the character. Burry then gets forgotten in the last third of the movie during the extended Vegas scene due to the filmmaker’s respect for reality, but it would have been interesting to see him used in a more dynamic way.
Overall, the movie is a fast-paced, pseudo-documentary that processes a ton of information while also having quite a few laughs. The film, unlike the financial deals that it portrays, is not empty. The film gives an adequate explanation of a complex series of events (the book does a better job, obviously). I enjoyed watching it and laughed throughout most of the movie.