Comedy writer/director Adam McKay should be applauded alone for taking such difficult subject matter as the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis and turning it into a stylish and wholly entertaining film. The Big Short, based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, uses all of McKay's visual and narrative filmmaking tricks to add humour and substance to the real-life story caused by fraudulent crooks fuelled by shameless greed.
Christian Bale (as Dr. Michael Burry), Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt (also a producer) all play Wall Street outsiders who individually then collectively figure out the American mortgage industry is based on bad investments and will eventually default leading to a financial collapse. They tell everyone they know and are laughed at before setting up credit swaps to short the bad loans when they fail for big profits.
Gosling, in particular, who has the most superficial character, is full of vibrant energy as he explains financial jargon and narrates real-life incidents straight to the camera. He spews charm even when he's betting against the American economy and we still somehow root for him. Carrell gives a big, over the top performance in the midst of chaos. Bale commits to Burry's loopy, off-putting but predictive behaviour. Pitt is mostly used as a wise mentor figure to John Magaro and Finn Wittrock as up and coming traders struggling to be taken seriously who stumble upon the opportunity of a lifetime.
Filmed in a docudrama style, the film is full of small character performances and amusing cameos to explain exactly how such financial ruin could happen to a lay audience. In Anchorman 2, McKay explicitly mocked corporations only interested in giving exactly what their customers want for profit, and by taking an edu-tainment style approach to expressing the story to us, he gets to have his cake and eat it too (similarly to how he explained Ponzi schemes in The Other Guys).
The Big Short offers enough smart commentary and reverence to make the infuriating real-life situation not only palatable but thrilling. McKay is in his element mocking the dumb and the greedy as he frames the financial system as an irrevocably broken entity propped up for the benefit of the privileged who can take advantage. It's a satisfying film, both as drama and comedy, that works on multiple levels exploring the consequences of wealth.
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