As The Big Short acknowledges in its opening sequence, banking is not a very exciting profession. When movies get made about the financial industry, the focus tends to rest of the stock market, because the volatility of the subject is exciting. Traditionally, the only excitement that comes from banks in cinema is when one gets robbed. The Big Short transcends this stereotype, detailing the basis for the 2008 financial crisis in a tense yet entertaining manner. Directed by Adam McKay, known for Apatow-style comedies such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, this movie could be best described as an ‘informational comedy’. Mixing narrative and documentary, the purpose is always greater than just entertainment.
After explaining how “mortgage-backed securities” work, the story begins in 2005, the peak of the housing bubble. The audience is introduced to three groups that notice this bubble and attempt to profit from it. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) runs a hedge fund where he gets the idea to spend $1.3 billion on ‘credit default swaps’, essentially betting against the housing market. Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is running a fund under Morgan Stanley when the idea of buying swaps is brought to him by Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). And Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock) run a garage fund where they get their neighbor and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them make the deal. Interconnectedness between the groups is not forced. Instead, the film transitions between each story to increase the pace and add variety.
The story is narrated by Gosling’s character, but the 4th wall is broken in all of the sequences. Whether it be a small gesture towards the camera or directly speaking to it a la Ferris Bueller, the audience is acknowledged and treated as part of the story. While this can be an unnerving experience, it is very effective towards creating a documentary-like feel. This is such an amazing stylistic choice for a couple big reasons. First, it draws attention and focus to itself. This allows the film to garner a larger retention rate when something is explained. Second, it creates a tour guide for the narrative. The significance of certain moments, especially moments foreign to those without financial industry experience, are detailed, allowing the audience to really learn something from the movie. It’s a daring move, but it pays off.
The Big Short is easily Adam McKay’s most serious film, but it’s also in serious contention for his funniest. While the comedy isn’t as overt and parody-oriented as his previous films, there is a frustration built up that lends itself towards comedy. Each of the characters is played to a realistic extreme, leading to one darkly humorous sequence after another. The editing is miraculous, as the movie moves through time and shifts between the different characters. This creates a strong energy that never wavers, making the 2-hour run-time a breeze.
While the film is very much engrained in the financial market – and things do get very dense – a knowledge or even serious interest in the subject is not necessary. The subject is important, and the movie does a great job at explaining it, but is not the only significance to the film. The Big Short’s cinematic thesis puts it in a whole other league, as it is using the art form to do something different. It is wildly entertaining, socially relevant, and deserves full support. 10/10.