The Big Short is a terrific companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. And, to be a dork, I will compare them the only way I know how: Short is like DC comics and Street is like Marvel. The former is fun but also grounded and serious, whereas the latter is all fun and style but deeply rooted in something more real and human. Both are fantastic in their own right. Like Street, I can’t wait to watch Short again. Sure there are less hookers and blow than Street, but with Short I will be a smarter man coming out of it.
But, to describe it professionally, Short is the most horrifying comedy I’ve ever seen. At one moment its spastic energy and meta-humor will have you rolling in the aisles, but that’s all to lube up the mind-blowing, terrifying information about the big banking industry in the next. Thankfully the filmmakers had the good sense to throw in Margot Robbie in a bubble bath and Anthony Bourdain in to help explain it all, acting like a nightlight to scare away the money monsters.
In a way, those are the best descriptions I can give about the movie. To actually explain what it’s about would be a fool’s errand, confusing myself and all the readers, which would lead to a lot of tears and curling up into balls. However, that’s not to say the movie is by any means bad.
In fact, even though I’ll never understand the plot of Wall Street workers betting against the big banks, different types of fraudulent loans and a bunch of other stuff with big, expensive college words this is an incredibly watchable, accessible film. In factier, I can’t wait to watch it again.
Don’t take that to mean I’m now some nerd who prefers numbers to the almighty word. There’s just something about it that leaves me anxious to explore this world of seedy a-holes, what with their fancy suits, bad toupees and obvious unpleasantness. Or maybe it’s the weirdos, outsiders and loveable dicks at the center of the stories setting, out to take all the fat-cats down using their own game.
This ensemble of strange features Michael Burry, a socially inept risk analyzer (or something like that, played by Christian Bale); Mark Baum, a hot-headed stock trader (or something like that, played by Steve Carrell); Jared Vennett, a fast-talking stock broker (or something like that, played by Ryan Gosling); and Ben Rickert, a former stock guy turned hippie (exactly like that, played by Brad Pitt). Each character—in their own way and mostly independent of each other (Burry spends all his time alone in his office, never meeting the others)— discover the future doom of the real estate market and do their best to cash in, hoping to take down the banks in the process.
I should amend the previous adjective of loveable to likeable, because even though you have no trouble rooting for these guys they aren’t exactly the best people. Baum is an easily enraged little fellow who is constantly on the verge of blowing the bad hair cut off the top of his head. Vennett is your typical “I’m smarter and richer than you’ll ever be” douche and Rickert is just an idealistic hippie, which is bad enough when he gets to talking about the benefit of natural grown seeds. No matter. You root for them the same. Carrell has officially transferred into leading man status, commanding his scenes with confidence, hilarity and the occasional heartbreak. It really is the perfect role for him. Pitt has done the opposite, remaining in the background as he continues to become more of a supporting player like in 12 Years a Slave. Gosling is the perfect likeable asshole because, really, how could you hate that face?
The only one who I can imagine anyone truly empathizing with is Burry. He is the only one who gets a bit of a back story that goes to his childhood, tearfully illuminating his social awkwardness and therefore his current loneliness. He spends the whole movie alone in his office, crunching numbers and blasting heavy metal music—his way of dealing with any and all problems. There’s a slight arrogance in Burry, one that’s developed from being so shy of people, but it’s hidden under a shyness-fueled barrier. He’s not charming and quirky masquerading as socially awkward; he’s truly socially awkward. Bale plays him with reserved sensitivity, rare for the normally intense actor. His posture is slumped and shrunk inwards, his eyes always looking away from others or off into the distance. Among the chaos of Wall Street and banking conventions here is a quiet, subdued genius acting as a human among wolves.
Everything about this movie screams unconventional, and I think most of that is thanks to co-writer/director Adam McKay (working with Charles Randolph from Michael Lewis’ book). Not only did he think to cast people in roles completely opposite to what they normally do, but are still so perfect for, he knew that given the confusing nature of the material there would have to be a strong character element to ground it down (see all above). This leaves room for the completely bonkers, hand-held shooting style, making for a perfect blend of manic humor and grounded reality. One scene that comes to mind is when Carrell is talking to some Wall Street big-wig and having to contain his idealistic rage while being fed this liar’s bullshit. Carrell makes it hysterical while the info makes it heinous. You don’t think the two can blend, until they do.
There are a lot of quick cuts and close-up shots which can often be disorienting. But McKay was experimenting with a sort of documentary style comedy that’s mostly technically effective. I mean, it does go along with the biting sense of humor, even if he could’ve zoomed out a simdge. Still, this is exactly what I would call an aggressive comedy. At one moment it’s hysterical, but when it gets down to the grim reality—people losing their homes and the greed of the big banks and knowing they’ve all gone unpunished—a true sense of horror is seamlessly blended in.
Honestly, I don’t know how he did it. One moment your laughing and the next your wondering about where your money is going (mine went Junior Mints that day), and it all works together so well. The result is a comedy that takes the fantasy world you live in, where everyone can be trusted and candy canes line the streets, and crushes it under thousands of pounds of loan paperwork and lies. Shocking is the best word to describe what you will witness, but it’s the truth, and you’ll be a better person for understanding it.