Adam McKay, Will Ferrell’s partner in writing and director of renown comedies like Step Brothers and Anchorman, is not the first director that comes to mind when assembling the crew for a sophisticated script encapsulating the intricacies of the staggeringly complex US housing market collapse in 2008. And yet it probably should.
Indeed, McKay himself told his agent that, even though he wished to adapt Michel Lewis’ New York Times Best-Selling book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine more than anything in the world, movie studios would be reluctant to release such a script to a ‘comedy writer’. After threatening to leave the Anchorman sequels, McKay acquired the rights and quickly wrote a new script that garnered the interest of famous actors and producers such as Brad Pitt.
The plot revolves around four outsiders, Dr.Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Jare Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) who, in 2005-2008 are able to anticipate the housing market’s gross overvaluation and the following housing bubble burst. This leads them to bet against the seemingly stable housing market, or “short” it, against convention, the media and the big banks.
Even after suffering strong losses and criticisms, Dr.Burry stuck to the data and logically came to the conclusion that the market was fraudulent. While he embraces the imperfections of the capitalist market, Baum denies the foul incentives of the big banks until the proofs overwhelm him and accept not only the horrors he unveils but the ones of his personal life. Vennett, meanwhile, is in it for the money, and doesn’t hide it. Rickert is simply portrayed a strong pessimist who uses the crash as another reason to distrust the system.
Strangely, McKay’s comical touch is exactly what such a daunting story needed. To compensate for the difficult notions and vocabulary shouted or whispered thorough the film, comedy is injected into the task of explaining niche jargon, satirising the grotesque complexity of the dilemmas at hand. The impeccable timing of certain songs allow the audience to comprehend when something big or surprising happened before even understanding why, and allows for more comical and entertaining moments.
One could ask for a style resembling Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, but McKay clearly wished to create a unique balance between comedy, that Scorsese embraced fully, and drama, that Steve Carell carried astonishingly well, playing a character that served very much as the moral compass (similarly to the real person he embodied, Mark Baum).
The rhythm was also manipulated with surgical precision, allowing for ‘breaks’ which portrayed certain obscene aspects of the true story with memorable quotes the likes of: “The Truth is like poetry, and most people f****** hate poetry (Overheard in a Washington D.C. bar). The historical accuracy seem to have been well communicated thanks to Ryan Gosling’s monologues, breaking the 4th wall and speaking directly to the spectators, and the shoulder filming style embodied by slightly shaky cameras and zooming effects the likes seen in The Office.
Overall, the entire crew seem to have given their best, in the safe hands of a decisive director and a competent cinematographer; entertaining the audience while educating them about an important and complex issue that still affects us all.