The closing credits sequence of Adam McKay’s The Other Guys always did seem like a tease for a completely different film. Isolated from the Will Farrell/Mark Wahlberg buddy cop film that it’s attached to, the data-strewn end credits suggests a director with a politically-conscious palette and a sharp comic wit, even as it didn’t jibe with the crass material that preceded it. But if The Other Guys did not earn its bitter ending, then McKay’s The Big Short certainly does. It’s a film set out to detail the select few who were aware of the immediate housing crash of 2008 and the subsequent economic Armageddon that proceeded. Given the veneer of prestige associated with the project (being based off of Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine and featuring a cast of numerous Academy Award winners and nominees) and the Big Themes it tackles, it’s of considerable surprise that Adam McKay – a director best known for his two Anchorman films – could’ve possibly wrangled himself into such an awards player. But for better or worse, this is certainly McKay’s film: riddled with the kind of humor that has generated effusive praise and discouraging groans. He’s a prankster with a juvenile sense of humor; making this story about investment bankers and their grandiose delusions all the more vital.
McKay and cowriter Charles Randolph design the picture as separate and interspersed narrative arcs that follow various money managers as they attempt to understand the ensuing subprime mortgage crisis. One narrative finds the Asperger-afflicted Michael Burry (Christian Bale), founder of Scion Capital, as the first to predict the collapse: he devises the credit default swap that instigates the rest of the picture. Elsewhere, we find Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a gifted cynic with a pointed bullshit antenna, leading a coterie of money managers in an effort to understand the differences between legality and stupidity in lending. They enter the fold through happenstance, when a wrong number from Wall Street banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) exposes them to the depths of fraud associated with subprime mortgage lending. The cast is rounded out by the novice hedge fund investors of Cornwall Capital (played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) and their mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) as their investing strategies on betting on disaster pays dividends.
The film is problematic and unnecessarily bloated with labored backstories that deter from McKay’s inherent strengths: to extract comedy out of his privileged subjects. Baum’s legacy of distrust following his brother’s suicide or Burry’s social anxieties and the subsequent strains on his domestic life are half-hearted attempts at actualization despite valiant efforts made on behalf of the cast (Bale fairs best). It unnecessarily attempts to valorize its heroes while remaining condemnatory of their fiscal aims; it’s fundamentally contradictory. Yet why is the film so infectious?
Critical to The Big Short’s success is how McKay illustrates the process of procedure. He’s absolutely erratic. He zooms in and out of a composed frame, edits sequences in rapid succession without bothering to convey a sense of place, and lights offices as if prepping for an action scene. He has his actors break the forth wall, deploys random images to convey passages of time, and utilizes quotes as act breaks. None of these in themselves are revelatory, but their cumulative effective is powerful. His sense of humor absolutely obliterates the very notion of what it means to make a “procedural” and instead operates under his own directorial dialect.
This, in part, is a response to what I consider to be a directorial negligence in what’s this year’s major awards contender, Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight. The two films, Spotlight and The Big Short, have much in common beyond their A-list ensembles. They’re both fundamentally films about probing, about a particular search for truth, and about the inherent falsehoods and contradictions in willing discovery. But McKay’s excessive approach bares a thematic purpose in mirroring the excess of his characters and narrative. It’s an appropriate device to magnify his thematic purpose. He clearly borrows extensively from Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, emulating that film’s vision of debauchery with an emphasis on procedure. The tenor of this combination can be screechingly erratic. But as characters in the film will attest, it’s hard to notice what you see everyday. In the case of The Big Short, this is anything but typical procedural faire.