Adam McKay's The Big Short --adapted from Michael Lewis' book of the same name--is a disaster movie played for laughs, only in this case the disaster involves the entire US economy, and when the smoke clears and you have a chance to think about it there's really not a lot to laugh about.
McKay tries his best though.
Have not read the book but judging from this and Moneyball Lewis has the knack of turning complex unfriendly subject matter (usually involving statistics or some form of math) into compelling narrative (the Sandra Bullock version of his The Blind Side I have not seen--just the idea of a wealthy white housewife redeeming an at-risk black youth gives me hives--but the book is a riveting account of the evolution of the offensive left tackle (and I know next to nothing about the sport; only found out from the book exactly what a tackle does)).
This is good material, excellent even, and to McKay's credit he doesn't do enough to screw it up. Oh, he adopts the worst possible visual style--the kind of jittery handheld camera that can give the unprepared viewer screaming migraines, plus a tendency to cut from face to face without letting the implications of their words describing rather involved financial shenanigans properly sink in (I'm guessing McKay is trying for the edgy look of the white-collar comedy The Office, which to be honest I'm not a big fan of either). Eventually you form an idea of the magnitude of the tsunami about to rise up and swallow the civilized world (helps if you followed the events as they actually unfolded), is in fact still wreaking havoc today (see China), and you can't help but be appalled: Is our drive to self-destruction so powerful? Can the folks in charge have been that greedy? Are we all actually this stupid?
It helps that McKay has an excellent cast of actors on board, able and willing to sink their teeth into the story. Ryan Gosling's Jared Venett is the kind of sleekly dressed Aryan-looking Master of the Universe you ache to loathe (Gosling doesn't disappoint); when he takes profit from our collective financial misery he's ready with an infuriating reply: "Who said I was the good guy?" Christian Bale as Scion hedge fund manager Michael Burry (the only character from the book to keep his real name onscreen) channels his inner Bruce Wayne to autistically focus on the subprime market's default rate. He's the first to sense impending doom and positions his fund early--a bit too early; he hadn't counted on the possibility that the system would stay afloat on the sheer force of its momentum (or ignorance, or corruption) long after his set deadline date (second quarter of 2007), and his investors understandably panic.
Steve Carell's Mark Baum is practically the only one of these risk-taking profiteers (and they were taking risks; if the economy hadn't tanked they would have been on the hook for hundreds of millions) who actually seems to care for the potential casualties (the borrowers who were either misinformed or didn't know enough English to understand what they were getting into; the mutual fund investors who never realized they were sitting on the real estate equivalent of a nuclear explosive), and for most of the film his apparently out-of-proportion moral indignation at all the complacent cupidity around him is funny...until it isn't. Then he seems more like a somber Prophet of Doom who takes little consolation from the fact that his predictions have come true.
I can guess at the thought process that led the filmmakers into turning this into a comedy: probably the only way to make this much information palatable, much less entertaining; perhaps the best way to retain audience interest despite practically everyone knowing the grim ending. The movie would make an interesting companion piece to Martin Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street--I'm thinking McKay was watching this (or any number of recent Scorsese films) when he came up with the idea of characters directly addressing the audience. Wolf doesn't take up the story of the Great Recession (involving 'pump and dump' scams, or the pressured sale of penny stocks) but does illuminate the callous recklessness, monstrous egotism, and basic dishonesty of stock brokers and fund managers in general. Call The Big Short McKay's Schindler's List to Scorsese's Downfall: instead of focusing on the perpetrators or victims, McKay focuses on the relatively smart few who survive the general bloodbath.
Could also imagine Stanley Kubrick directing--as far as Plans That Go Wrong are concerned, this has sufficient irony and suffering to go near the top of his list. Arguably Kubrick has directed something similar: Dr. Strangelove didn't deal with The End of Our Economy but The End of the World, with plenty of dark humor and an inimitably precise visual style (no handheld cameras...well maybe once, during the Burpleson Air Force Base attack).
Scorsese has done his version; Kubrick alas is unavailable; what we're left with is this: a sincere stab at the issue that draws a fair amount of blood, provokes a fair amount of remembered pain. You take what dramatization you can get, I suppose, and hope--with the viewing of this and more vigilance on our part--that it doesn't happen again.
First published on Businessworld, 1.22.16