Review by Rob Vaux
The best comedy comes from real life. Ask Mel Brooks, whose greatest film, The Producers, came from his own experiences on Broadway. Ask Ivan Reitman, who drew upon years in a college fraternity to help pen Animal House. Ask Mike Judge, whose masterpiece Office Space is a testament to anyone who ever held a 9-to-5 job. Reality is more ridiculous than any gag, and if you can tap into it properly, you’re going to have some magic on your hands.
Adam McKay probably understands this as well as anyone. He’s best known for his work with Will Ferrell, both classic (Anchorman) and otherwise (Step Brothers). He has some brilliant comedies on his list, but they usually focus more on the laughs than the social commentary, letting Ferrell’s idiot man-children run rampant and leaving it at that. With The Big Short, he goes after significantly larger game. Yet the idiot man-children remain firmly in sight, and with them, he finds something special.
In this case, they’re the guys who tanked the economy in 2008: hustlers, con artists and grinning reptiles who use titles like “bankers” and “real estate investors” to hide their vile shell game. Based on a non-fiction book of the same name, the film outlines the details that led to the Great Recession, and had McKay chosen to tell the story through the eyes of some crusader trying vainly to stop it all, it would have been forgotten before the credits rolled. But instead, he tracks it through a group of guys who see it coming… and want to use it to make a ton of money
They’re a bit of a mad monk squad, ranging from Christian Bale’s spooky hedge fund manager to Steve Carrell’s tightly wound head case. They play Cassandra to the coming horror, vainly trying to convince everyone they can that this is coming. And yes, it’s a comedy, mostly because they can’t get anyone to believe them. One of the film’s great strengths is how it spells out exactly, precisely what happened in easy-to-understand terms. At its heart lies the sub-prime mortgage market, where highly questionable mortgages were bundled together with reliable ones in an effort to hide the risk. It worked, for a while, but there’s only so many houses to sell and as the market got thinner and thinner, the masters of the universe bundled shakier and shakier deals behind the façade of rock-ribbed investments.
Our collection of protagonists figure it out fairly early in the game, and make various plans to profit from the knowledge. At first they can’t believe their luck. Most of them, in fact, actually do their homework: to the point of flying down to look at some of the houses involved in it all, and some of the frat-bro shmucks selling them to highly questionable buyers. Secure in the knowledge that the whole thing is going to blow up, these men bet heavily against the market… assuming that the banks and other prime movers and shakers will eventually see what they do and take steps accordingly.
The thing is, no one does. Through a toxic combination of greed, hubris and full-bore idiocy, the Wall Street powers that be assume that the good times will just keep rolling, leaving this scruffy band of misfits to take up the slack. As the crisis mounts, our “heroes” (we use the term loosely) realize with growing horror that they’ve bet on a total global meltdown.
Their responses make the film so interesting and unique. Some, having been laughed at for years over their predictions, are happy to take the money and run. Others at least have the decency to hate themselves, while still others try vainly to warn people about the impending disaster. McKay thrives by reveling in their outsider status: the fact that you have to be a little bit nuts to bet against what the entire world assumes to be a sure thing, and how being right doesn’t necessarily mean anyone else will go along.
And he doesn’t skimp on the moral implications of the equation either. We see the sniggering faces on Wall Street, but we also see their victims-to-be: people who rent from dodgy landlords, who believe that a house of their own is finally within reach, who just want to raise their kids and hold their jobs like they always have. They’re the ones who suffered the most from the crisis, though no fault of their own, and The Big Short makes sure we understand exactly, precisely what that feels like. (“Just don’t fucking dance,” Brad Pitt’s burned-out veteran snarls at his partners when they start high-fiving each other over betting on a tanked economy.)
That binds the absurdity tightly with sobering tragedy: social commentary wrapped in slack-jawed disbelief that grown-ups let this happen. (And even worse, that we learned nothing from the crisis except how to blame the victims in louder voices.) It reminds us how systematic the corruption was and that the same conditions exist today. And thanks to McKay’s comedic touch, it never comes across as sanctimonious or preachy. It simply elevates what he and Ferrell perfected with earlier films into the tragic absurdity of the real world, where people assume that making a lot of money means you know all about life and will blithely ignore our collective best interests in favor of naked greed. Aided by a cast whose credentials need no polishing (Carrell continues his amazing development as a dramatic actor), it makes The Big Short one of the best movies of the year, and suggests that light comedy may only be the start of the things McKay has to show us.