Reviewed by Larry Gleeson. Viewed during the AFI Filmfest 2015.
“The Big Short,” directed by Adam McKay, based on the book by Michael Lewis, was adapted by McKay and Charles Randolph and made its world premiere Thursday, November 12, 2015 at the historic TCL Grauman’s Chinese Theater as the closing night film for the latest edition of the American Film Institute’s AFI FEST film festival.
The film’s narrative is driven by four cynical, fringe Wall Street entities disgusted with the large banking institutions’ overriding greed for profits. They make the decision to capitalize on the ensuing housing market calamity and the financial meltdown of 2008 upon discovering the market frenzy is being driven by worthless “dog shit” collateral debt obligations.
McKay chooses to inject a significant dose of humor in the early scenes to condition the audience receptors for what they are about to experience. Utilizing the Martin Scorsese docu-drama style in a similar setting with “Wolf of Wall Street,” a strong narrative voice dominates particular moments. Several of these deliberately break the ‘Fourth Wall” in the style of “Wolfie,” Jordan Belfort, as the characters, including a hilarious cameo by Selena Gomez, speak directly into the camera to explain the complexities of Wall Street financials. The overall effect adds additional humor and adds another layer in creating a sense of authenticity and truth about the film’s subject matter.
After a rather lengthy dizzying, yet delightful, character introduction, the film picks up pace as the drama begins to unfold. Dr. Michael Burry, an eccentric financial analyst, with complete autonomy of an investment fund, uncovers variables in his economic forecast indicating a massive housing market collapse. He informs his higher up, Lawrence Fields, played convincingly by Tracy Letts, of his discovery and creates a financial prospectus. In essence, he creates a commodity of selling short on bundled mortgages.
The bankers laugh as they willingly sell Burry all the “insurance” he wants. Word quickly spreads of Burry’s perceived madness in a after-work cocktail scene. With interest piqued upon overhearing the Wall Street gossip of the day, Jarred Bennett, portrayed by Ryan Gosling, scoops up the essence of Burry’s move. Soon, he sells a group led by Steve Carell’s all-too-human, Mark Baum to buy in.
As the debacle is in full free-fall, Baum struggles with disbelief as he and his group have bet against their own umbrella entity, Morgan Stanley. The final team that has uncovered the impending financial crisis, made up of two Wall Street neophytes and veteran Ben Rickert, played by one of the film’s producers, Brad Pitt, also struggles with the imploding financial system caused by corporate greed and indifference.
With a mammoth cast, McKay draws on a plethora of talent in the likes of Hollywood A-listers including Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Selena Gomez, Christian Bale, Karen Gillan Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo and Finn Wittrock. McKay and Randolph create characters with witty dialogue coupled with complementary cinematography provided by Barry Ackroyd. The soundtrack carries a similar tone of “Wolf of Wall Street,” with a compilation of classic rock anthems. Nicholas Britell widely recognized for his work on Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” where Britell composed on set the on-screen violin performances, work songs, dances and spiritual songs rarely misses a beat this time out. Much like another AFI FEST 2015 film, “The Clan,” Argentina’s official entry to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Best Foreign Language Category for Oscar, “The Big Short,” musical score is often in juxtaposition to the the narrative and mise-en-scen adding a deeper visceral quality to the viewing experience.
In its most basic essence, “The Big Short,” builds on the visceral truth of Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street.” It depicts a not-so-long-ago present where a noble ideal, making home ownership a reality for Americans, is bastardized by the indifferent market forces of capitalism. Probably not what Adam Smith had in mind when he penned his treatise, “The Wealth of Nations.” Warmly Recommended.