Travel and Dining

The Big Short Review

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling.

Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt are in a movie together … and it's not sexy.

The Big Short takes on the challenge of keeping the audience entertained with a story about the abuse of complex financial instruments—a story of which everyone knows the ending. The housing bubble bursts. Global markets collapse. No one goes to jail.

The movie succeeds by allowing us to walk in the shoes of the handful of people who discovered the gaping cavity at the center of the housing market before anyone else. The acting is excellent, from superstars and supporting cast alike. Steve Carell and Christian Bale have shown how compelling they can make a character cut from real life (Foxcatcher, The Fighter), and neither disappoints here.

Bale plays Michael Burry, a socially awkward hedge fund manager who listens to death metal in the office and doesn't wear shoes. Burry makes the audacious move of analyzing the subprime mortgage loans on which the supposedly bulletproof housing market is built. When he discovers that the market is made of paper, not brick, he goes to multiple banks and asks for a way to bet against the housing market. The bankers laugh at him, then gladly take his bet.

Burry's discovery spreads to the other main characters, who plunge deep into the rabbit hole as they put together, one piece at a time, just how corroded and corrupted the whole economic machine has become—from the ratings agencies and the SEC all the way down to the macho man-boys who write loans for people with no jobs. While "short" means to bet against, this story also screams of how shortsighted the thinking was at every link of the chain. One is likely to walk out of the theater angrier and more informed than before.

Carell is particularly magnetic as hedge fund manager Mark Baum, a man who is extremely intelligent but also extremely brash, calling bullshit on everyone and everything, taking over every conversation as soon as he walks in the room. On Inside the Actors Studio, Carell talks about when Baum visited the set. "Apparently they told him, 'Kind of hang back, fly on the wall. Don't hang out at the monitor.' … Within minutes he was sitting in a chair at the monitor. He was giving Adam [McKay] notes. He was giving me notes on set." Carell then adds, "And they were good notes."

Brash as he is, Baum is the one who most agonizes over the real, concrete effect that this will all have on regular people. Even before Bear Stearns falls, he knows that taxpayers will ultimately be the ones to absorb the impact when the weight of trillions of dollars crashes to the earth. There's an excellent scene in a restaurant where Baum realizes the enormity of the situation, and the room starts to swirl for him, voices blurring, background laughter cutting in and out, a worldview being fractured and spilt apart.

Whereas a movie like Margin Call pulls you in with its slickness and cutthroat characters, The Big Short goes for realism, not only with its characters but also in the way it's shot. Much of it feels a little like a documentary, with shaky handheld shots used purposefully.

Director Adam McKay (who wrote the script with Charles Randolph, based on the book by Michael Lewis) is best known for the movies he's made with Will Ferrell—Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers—so this movie really shows his range. There are plenty of laughs throughout The Big Short, but the subject matter is deadly serious.

To handle the complex, soporific concepts on which the story hinges, McKay breaks the fourth wall. Gosling's character turns to the camera on numerous occasions to tell the audience whether or not something on screen played out differently in real life. For the driest, most important concepts, celebrities are enlisted. Cut to: Margot Robbie, drinking champagne in a bubble bath, explaining subprime mortgage bonds and credit-default swaps. Cut to: Selena Gomez explaining a synthetic CDO. Then back to the story.

"I'm just a big believer of 'you do what you do to tell the story,'" McKay says. "Part of the con, part of the scam that the banks ran, was that they would use this impenetrable, boring language to describe stuff. So if you can't get past that, you can't understand the scam."

The film does a good job of decoding the financial jargon without bogging down the plot. The rhythm is steady as these characters pull back the curtain on a system where seemingly no one is competent and everyone is complicit. In the end, one is left with a palpable sense of the ability that greed has to infect, degrade and destroy.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Joshua Pringle.