With such a pressing subject matter and a cast that looks like the Oscar bait equivalent to the public’s pre-2007 sentiments on the housing market — The Big Short seemed too big to fail. This time, we were right.
The film’s director and co-writer, Adam McKay, has a legendary comedic résumé. The man wrote for SNL from 1995-2001 (serving as head writer for 3 years), produced Eastbound & Down, co-created comedy website Funny or Die, and served as director and co-writer on some of Will Ferrell’s finest films. In fact, before The Big Short, he had only directed comedies starring Will Ferrell.
So why would a major studio that has been steadily declining in market share and box office gross since 2011 hire a comedic leader to helm their holiday-season drama? It seems Paramount decided that only through humor and wit can such a grim Wall Street tale be appealing. Otherwise, we may as well stay at home watching Khan Academy.
Despite the film’s comedic nature, The Big Short makes a point of explaining the complexities of the financial crisis — something one would expect to get rather dry at times. Fortunately for McKay, his lack of subtlety with these points only added to the unique, eclectic style of this movie. Ultimately, it is a style that deviates from the historical drama/biopic formula that we continue to see, in which unlikely heroes that claim enormous dramatization to be truth. The Big Short operates with an overly-confident self-awareness instead. When certain moments appear to be too convenient to be true, the involved characters will be the first to admit to the audience when something is historically inaccurate, before continuing to play along. Often times, rather than forcing characters to explain financial terms, McKay will seamlessly cut away to celebrities to help explain terms to the audience. Highlights of this include Margot Robbie explaining the value of subprime mortgages in a bubble bath, and Selena Gomez using blackjack bets to explain CDOs. Some may call it sexy, but from a filmmaking perspective, it’s brilliant.
Despite the laughs, the wit, and the charm, this film is not a comedy. It’s a memory and a warning. It comes from the sobering words of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) when his young associates begin to celebrate their inevitably winning bet against the U.S. economy: “If we’re right, people lose homes, people lose jobs, people lose retirement savings, people lose pensions…for every 1 percent unemployment goes up, 40,000 die. Did you know that?” The most frightening part: He’s not wrong.
No one saw the crash coming, but awards season will see The Big Short from a mile away.