I’ve never really understood what would drive a filmmaker to want to pigeonhole themselves into a single genre, and honestly, I usually suspect they only do that when they don’t really have the talent to work outside their comfort zone. This happens a lot in horror movies (where people like Wes Craven and George Romero make entire careers out of being proclaimed “masters of horror) and to a certain extent with action movies (at least when you’re talking about the Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich tier) but it also happens with comedies. Every once in a while you’ll see a “comedy director” who brings a real vision to his craft like a Wes Anderson or a Woody Allen, but when you’re talking about the world of studio comedy it usually means you’re one of the handful of boring directors like Paul Feig, Todd Phillips, and Shawn Levy who point their cameras at funny people then collect a check. The filmmaker who is probably most emblematic of that later trend is Adam McKay, a guy who has not only stuck to making vanilla plain comedies but who has up until now never made a single movie that wasn’t starring his longtime friend Will Ferrell. Now, in fairness there probably is a little more to making movies like Anchorman than I realize and it is to McKay’s credit that his silly Will Ferrell movies are generally considered better than other people’s silly Will Ferrell movies, but still nothing about the guy makes me think he has much of a cinematic eye. All that said, I’m willing to give him a shot as he branches out and that’s what he seems to have done with his latest film, an examination of the events leading up to the 2008 Wall Street crash based on a Michael Lewis book called The Big Short.
The film starts in 2005 when an eccentric hedge fund manager named Michael Burry (Christian Bale) who, in a moment of seemingly random insight, decided to take a closer look at the mortgage securities that were propping up the housing market and realized that the supposedly stable mortgages that were filling these securities were actually awful sub-prime mortgages that would almost certainly be foreclosed on. Because these securities were almost certainly going to fail he decided to have banks sell him insurance contracts against these mortgages called credit default swaps. He buys a ton of these and the banks are happy to sell them to him because they think the mortgage securities are stable and think he’s crazy for betting against him and so do almost everyone else who hear about it… except for a few other parties. One guy who catches wind of this scheme and thinks there’s something to it is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and it also soon spreads to a trader named Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who has something of a love/hate relationship with the investment industry. To decide whether or not this is for real he goes on something of an odyssey to examine just how messed up the mortgage industry really is. Meanwhile, two young investors named Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) also hear about what’s going on and want in, so they enlist a retired trader they know named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get in on the whole catastrophe.
It’s not hard to see why Michael Lewis picked up on this handful of people as a perfect perspective to view the mortgage crash through. For one thing they were on the ground as everything was happening and yet were also outsiders and critics and are thus pretty much the only semi-sympathetic people to come out of the whole debacle. There was of course the pesky little complication that their first instinct upon discovering this oncoming disaster was to find a way to make a buck off of it, which is a moral gray area that the film seems oddly unconcerned with outside of a few small moments, but given that there doesn’t seem to have been much of anything else they could have done with the information (the media wasn’t listening to them) it’s kind of hard to really hold that against them. I haven’t read the Lewis book and don’t really know the details of story as it pertains to these particular characters. It is notable that aside from Michael Burry all of the principals involved have had their names changed in the movie, so I’m pretty sure that aspects have been heavily streamlined and anecdotes have been invented in order to illustrate points… hell at times the characters look at the screen and tell us as much.
That isn’t really a problem though because I don’t think that telling these characters’ stories is really the film’s main concerns instead this movie’s goal seems to be to explain the 2008 crash to people who were too ADD to watch the documentary Inside Job and who haven’t picked up the newspaper in the last seven years. At times the movie is almost kind of insulting in the way it assumes its audience is made up of people who are beyond ignorant of basic financial concepts that should be pretty well known at this point. I was particularly insulted by a series of cameos that the film indulges in where the voiceover straight up says something along the lines of “I know you’re probably falling asleep hearing all this money stuff, so let’s bring in a celebrity like Selena Gomez to explain this so you dumbasses will actually pay attention.” Have we really digressed as a society so much that it’s just taken for a given that people need to be force fed this kind of information? Even people who have already expressed an interest in the subject matter by buying a ticket to a movie called The Big Short? Granted, people who haven’t heard this stuff already would probably get a pretty good primer from the film and that is kind of impressive, but there’s a certain smugness to the whole thing that I find a little irritating and I also feel like the whole thing is a bit late to the party in this whole thing. Obama has mostly done his job and the economy has mostly recovered so most of us have moved on from the whole recession so the immediacy of this story is kind of gone but it’s also a bit early to really look back on this like a true period piece.
The bigger problem here may ultimately have less to do with the script (which, despite its annoying tendencies, is still pretty snappy and informative) than it does with the direction. To put it simply, Adam McKay is in over his head. This isn’t a simple straightforward narrative, it’s a cocky film that’s filled with narrative techniques like cutaway and characters breaking fourth wall to explain things to the audience. We see this kind of thing we expect from directors like Martin Scorsese and Danny Boyle and it’s the kind of skill that auteurs develop over the course of a number of films, it’s not something you can just do at will and while McKay’s handling of this style certainly has a base confidence, you can easily tell that he’s no master of his craft. You can also tell that McKay’s work with Will Ferrell has not really made him accustomed to having to reign in actors every once in a while. That’s a problem here because Christian Bale is way over the top here. Bale takes his characters social awkwardness and really turns it up to the point where he can barely carry say a single sentence when talking with anyone. Interviews with the real Michael Burry are readily available on Youtube, it’s not hard to see just how much Bale is exaggerating things, possibly out of a pathological need to come off like a dedicated character actor. The rest of the actors here are better but there’s still a sense of caricature to all the actors across the board.
Now, I’ve talked a lot of smack about this movie and about halfway through it I was about ready to dismiss it as “The Wolf of Wall Street but for basic-ass people who need to have everything spelled out for them” but eventually the movie did start to win me over. It’s not that the movie actively gets better in that second half, but I maybe started to accept it for what it is. Its structure is unwieldly (the Brad Pitt section feels like it could be cut and no one would even notice) and its filmmaking is nothing special but it does have a certain rhythm to it and it certainly isn’t formulaic. McKay’s comedy background does help him out here and the Steve Carrell story arc amounted to more than I was expecting it to. The movie doesn’t hold a candle to The Wolf of Wall Street but if you look back at some of the movies that have addressed the 2008 crisis more directly like Margin Call, Too Big to Fail, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and this actually looks a lot better by comparison. As for Adam McKay… maybe don’t quit your day job.
*** out of Four