"The Big Short" Is More Economics Lecture Than Movie

Financial crisis docudrama “The Big Short” takes the “Schoolhouse Rock!” approach to its parched subject matter, attempting to inject color and zest into a topic that desperately needs it. It doesn’t work. There’s no catchy music or psychedelic animation here to make the medicine go down; only unrelatable, one-dimensional characters and fussy asides delivered by famous people playing themselves (viewers thirsty for a lecture on collateralized debt obligations from celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain are in for a treat, though).

“Anchorman” writer-director Adam McKay might argue that this is exactly the point of his film – that the traders-turned-traitors at the heart of this story are dependably shitty, boring people – but he’d have forgotten that “The Big Short” is being sold as a movie, not a 130-minute homework assignment. Informing moviegoers can be an amazing, transcendent thing. Talking at moviegoers, less so.

McKay has always been a comedy filmmaker (a very good one) and “The Big Short” finds him under that impression still. Most of the movie’s scenes are constructed around jokes, no matter how incongruous with the subject matter, building up to punchlines via information (so much information) and then sucking the air out of the room with a glib bit of self-deprecation. It’s a transparent technique spearheaded by lead character Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who also narrates the film, preciously breaking the fourth wall with every twist of the narrative.

This is an especially liberal use of the word “narrative,” as the characters’ environs are the only things connecting them (Christian Bale, as oddball hedge fund manager Michael Burry, doesn’t share a single scene with his co-stars).

Steve Carell plays trader Mark Baum, a fictional composite of several real-life Wall Street wolves. As the film’s reluctant moral center, Baum is the only character that doesn’t come off as a caricature, with Carell doing his best to remain the movie’s connective tissue even as he’s relegated to information collector (his scene in the VIP room of a strip club is particularly groan-inducing).

Last (and least) is a bearded Brad Pitt as retired banker Ben Rickert, a character that functions solely as a sage to two uniquely unlikable Wall Street newbies (played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) as they improbably uncover the impending crisis.

McKay’s intentions are good; his screenplay (co-written by Charles Randolph and based on the book by Michael Lewis) isn’t afraid of speaking truth to power, ever exposing its backbone. But it’s missing the rest of its skeleton. There are no victims portrayed in the film (something this year’s “99 Homes” did quite well), nor are there any true devils. All of its players exist in the purgatory of the American economic system, each character lurking to take wonderful, terrible advantage of unwitting American families preyed upon by their banks.

That it’s wrapped up in cutesy monologues from a smirking Ryan Gosling makes the taste all the more bitter, compounding the subject matter’s Inside Baseball-ness into a coarse, impenetrable paste.

The sheer amount of text that ends the film is the perfect emblem of its draining, unending loquaciousness. When McKay concluded Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg buddy-cop comedy “The Other Guys” with an out-of-place lesson on financial subterfuge, it was the sign of a filmmaker conflicted. His next film, “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” more gracefully melded comedy and social commentary, but now McKay has backtracked to clunky infotainment. “The Big Short” is that unwelcome “Other Guys” credit sequence writ large, a makeshift vent for understandable frustrations.

The movie certainly has important information to impart, crucial emotions to expel. But it’s more exhausting than exhaustive, long on words instead of wisdom, and nearly as cold and calculating as its four leads. As an information dump, “The Big Short” is a solid success. As entertainment, it’s a bear in a bull market.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 11, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Adam McKay
Screenwriter: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Rafe Spall, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Byron Mann
MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity)