It isn’t completely far-fetched to look at The Big Short and immediately think — Wolf of Wall Street. I mean, for god’s sake, Margot Robbie shows up during the former — almost anticipating these comparisons and feeding into our expectations (as well as just being a beautiful human being).
Regardless of cameos, the similarities between the latest film from Anchorman director Adam McKay and the modern masterpiece by Martin Scorsese are there. Fast-talking money men, throwing dough left and right with hookers and blow along the way. But The Big Short is less interested in swimming in the scum of Wall Street, instead, it becomes a crusading finger pointed at injustice and a righteous exploration into what went wrong in 2008.
Led by an all-star cast that includes Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Christian Bale, The Big Short follows a group of outsiders who predicted the collapse of the housing market in the mid-2000s and decided to take on the banks because of their greed. McKay, leaving behind the goofiness of The Other Guys or Talladega Nights, crafts a movie that works almost like a long form investigative article but with bolded periods and a few f%$k you rants.
At times, The Big Short plays like scenes out of Koyaanisqatsi — playing quick sequences that encompass the culture of the mid-2000s into key points and moments — before returning to the story at hand. First introduced to Michael Burry (Bale), the momentum towards the apocalyptic conclusion seems something so crazy and unbelievable that most of the financial experts laugh in his face.
Bale plays Burry with a heavy-handed distance that makes you feel the anxiety that his character clearly suffers from in social situations. His mannerism and movements are deliberate and real, but most importantly, he felt like someone who knows they’re the smartest one in the room and will die with that mentality. On the other end of the spectrum is Mark Baum (Carell), who fires insults and opinions like an assault rifle, and has an emotional pull to the American people.
This isn’t Jordan Belfort and a room full of cocaine. McKay and writer Charles Randolph (coming from the book by Michael Lewis) aren’t looking to glorify the men with the money, instead, they become a nearly journalistic force that takes the audience by the shoulders and shakes them to a conscious state.
The message is clear: there are villains in the world taking your money and you have to be active to do something about it. As the quotes prior to each act say, the scariest thing to someone can be the truth, but understanding this truth is what will help you survive. Blindness won’t solve problems, only actively attempting to right the wrong will create success.
While never all intersecting at the same time, there is an excitement switching from the distant, social-inept honest man in Burry, the manic, foul-mouthed crusader in Baum, and the reserved and wise Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) that made The Big Short charming for most of the run. It also succeeds at feeding us dense financial information in both an informative, but also easy to consume way (thanks in part to a host of celebrity cameos and the ever charming Ryan Gosling).
But it sometimes forgets to separate itself, using narration that almost emulates the pseudo-intellectual Leo DiCaprio coaching us through Wolf, but McKay again realizes the similarities and brands his film differently. This usually comes in the form of a deft comedic touch and a quick edit that doesn’t allow the scene to linger and creates a fast laugh before moving on to more information.
It is almost frustrating to watch McKay pull of these touches so gracefully when his comedies usually don’t carry the same hand. After watching The Big Short, it is apparent that McKay is a smart filmmaker and someone that could elevate a property with his comedy knowledge, but that hasn’t been something we’ve seen in a lot of his previous films.
Whether it was a culmination of the long-in-the-works project, or just having fun with such a star-studded cast, The Big Short is a massive step for McKay and another for the “finance movie” — if that has even become a sub-genre. But the real accolade that The Big Short pulls off is that it is less a thrilling ride along a point in history with a bunch of stars, but a cautionary tale for the future and a reminder to keep our heads on straight.