Review: 'Big Short' will make you laugh, make you mad

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)

In adapting the 2010 financial crisis book "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" by Michael Lewis, the director of "Anchorman" doesn't seem like the first choice. And yet, it becomes clear that Adam McKay, known for his comedic work on "Saturday Night Live" and with Will Ferrell, is clearly the right man for the job, because the humor is absolutely necessary to cut through the rage you might feel at the material. The film clearly lays out the intricacies of the 2008 global financial crisis, demonstrating the ways in which bankers wrung money out of a housing market made out of wishes and dreams.
"The Big Short" is anchored by big name stars in goofy hair and accents, including Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Christian Bale, who are uniformly excellent all around as the loners, idiot-savants and misanthropes of Wall Street. They are the tenuously connected individuals who envisioned the spectacular crash of a housing market built on the rickety foundations of sub-prime mortgages propped up by false ratings.
Fast: If that sounds like too much wonky financial jargon, not to worry, McKay takes a speedy rat-a-tat-tat approach to the material and throws everything at the wall, stylistically speaking. "The Big Short" is post-modern to the max, self-reflective, a hodge-podge of fast editing and fast talking, breaking the fourth wall again and again to keep the story moving along, to clarify things, or to say "that really happened," or "that didn't really happen." McKay never dumbs down the explanations of the complicated financial products, but he does take the time to jazz up things like "synthetic collateralized debt obligation" with cheeky celebrity cameos.
The rapid-fire editing creates some clever sequences where he cuts between the different groups having similar reactions to events in the financial market, united in sentiment. They are cut as if talking to each other, even if they're on completely different sides of the country, and it's an ingenious way to link the disparate groups. There's also a fantastic sound design that goes along with the editing, blending voices and sound effects rhythmically throughout.
To lesser effect is McKay's reliance on quick cuts of contextless images to create a sense of the era. Images of soldiers are back to back with celebrities, family vignettes and small-town scenes. It jogs the neurons that might have repressed the pop culture of 2007-2008, but it's a bit much.
Carell: Steve Carell's grieving, rage-filled Mark Baum is the conscience of the film. As he talks to more and more bankers, brokers, real-estate agents and strippers with mortgages on multiple properties, his face seems to get redder and redder, his boiling point breached. He's never one to mince words and is the loud-mouthed canary in the coal mine. Still, when he's proven right and the sky has fallen, there's no sense of victory, just disappointment. It's as if they took these high risk bets hoping they might be wrong.
As we know, they weren't wrong. The irony is that our heroes end up making a huge windfall off the events that precipitated economic ruin for the larger population. "The Big Short," while funny, builds to a dour crescendo that feels all too familiar, managing to enrage anew with the hindsight-clear reminder of our not-so-distant past.

3.5 stars out of 4
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale
Directed by Adam McKay
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.

This photo provided by Paramount Pictures shows, Brad Pitt, left, as Ben Rickert and Finn Wittrock as Jamie Shipley, in the film, "The Big Short," from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises. (Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures via AP)
This photo provided by Paramount Pictures shows, Rafe Spall, from left, as Danny Moses, Jeremy Strong as Vinnie Daniel, Steve Carell as Mark Baum, Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett and Jeffry Griffin as Chris, in the film, "The Big Short," from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises. The movie opens in U.S. theaters on Dec. 23, 2015. (Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures via AP)
In this image released by Paramount Pictures, Steve Carell appears in a scene from "The Big Short." Carell was nominated for a Golden Globe award for best actor in a motion picture musical or comedy for his role in the film on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. The 73rd Annual Golden Globes will be held on Jan. 10, 2016.  (Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures via AP)
This photo provided by Paramount Pictures shows, Christian Bale as Michael Burry, in the film, "The Big Short," from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises. (Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures via AP)