The decade of financial corruption following the turn of the millennium may have crippled our nation, but it sure makes for some great movies. The Big Short, based on the 2010 book of a similar name, gives us a frighteningly close look into the slow building crisis that ultimately brought Wall Street to its knees in 2008. The Wolf of Wall Street, while similarly themed, gave us a very different perspective. That film feasted on the absurdity of the entire stockbroking industry, following one man’s ambitious journey towards a life of gluttony. We didn’t have to fully understand what was actually going on, but we witnessed the results of his actions and lifestyle. The Big Short dives deep into a more hardened, realistic portrayal of that time period. It attacks a different part of the system, and vilifies the culture more than any one megalomaniac.
The Big Short is incredibly dense, overflowing with information as the cast and crew take on the massive task of bringing audiences up to speed while entertaining them at the same time. And, for the most part, they nail it. The film’s teaching method settles into a formula that is both intimidating and accessible. Some of the lengthier explanations are rapidly fired at you, intentionally so, to convey just how skillfully these corrupt parties can convolute and mask the very simple process of one party screwing another. What the film does to counter this is brilliant. I was under the assumption that Deadpool would be the best movie I see this month that breaks the fourth wall. But The Big Short, particularly Ryan Gosling’s character, maintains a direct conversation with the audience throughout the entire movie. Gosling works a charming arrogance that very few could pull of without being absolutely despicable. They even go so far as to clarify, mid-movie, which events actually happened in the true story vs. what was added or embellished for the movie. That is some next-level audience interaction. And they use this method to introduce some surprise cameos, the first of which obviously being the most unexpected, who break down the complicated lingo and tell us what’s going on in simpler terms. Despite the strength of the film as a whole, many audiences would feel left behind if not for this very smart and thoughtful twist. One could argue that the film, at times, still struggles to be accessible. They can only explain so much in two hours. But I do feel like the writers filled in gaps that would’ve otherwise left me completely clueless.
With concerns of the thick subject matter mostly taken care of, the more traditional filmmaking aspects of The Big Short are given room to shine. Christian Bale, once again, completely loses himself in a role and becomes Dr. Michael Burry. I am less and less surprised every time I see him transform, but that doesn’t make the performance any less impressive. Steve Carell, given a greater character arc than Bale, was actually my favorite performance from start to finish. I’m almost glad I wasn’t writing reviews a year ago when Foxcatcher was released, because my dislike for that film was borderline unprofessional. I’m just glad each of the three leading men went on to have an excellent 2015. If Steve Carell wants to make a not so subtle push into Oscar-worthy roles, this is absolutely the kind of role he should be pushing for. I don’t want to see a role suck the life out of one of the liveliest men on the planet. Instead, we’re given moments of Michael Scott level social awareness, and plenty of uncomfortable laughs, but with an added emotional weight and depth that you would never see in a standard comedy. Steve Carell is capable of playing every stop along that spectrum, and the role of the brutally principled Mark Baum allowed him to showcase that. The cast is huge and great from top to bottom. There are plenty of scenes with neither lead character that are equally engaging.
I honestly can’t be sure what the ratio of genius to stupidity is on Wall Street. The Big Short seems to cut it at around 50-50, maybe favoring the latter. Regardless of where the truth lies, the film walks the line between mocking and informing, between a satire and a pseudo-documentary. It must have been tempting to beat the pop culture punching bag that is American banking one more time, and similarly tempting to spend just another minute telling us more about Collateralized Debt Obligations or the thousand other factoids in this film. But The Big Short hits all the right notes without ever becoming redundant. This film didn’t occupy Wall Street. Instead, it told a story. The story followed a too big to fail disaster and the few guys who questioned whether or not “too big to fail” is a valid pairing of words. They weren’t heroes; in fact they were the scavengers picking at the corpses of other scavengers. But they weren’t necessarily the bad guys either, simply seeking opportunity for themselves, and their foresight brought attention to a bursting bubble that everyone else refused to see.
The Big Short absolutely earns a conversational spot alongside the movies fighting for Best Picture glory. It teaches you, makes you laugh, makes you feel, carries social relevance, and serves as an example of great filmmaking. That’s more or less a checklist detailing what award winning films should possess. It’s an alarming story, and one of the better cautionary tales that avoids the appetizing urge to beat a dead horse. This year’s Oscars wouldn’t be the same without the opportunity to watch one of the more important movies of our time.