The Big Short has its flaws, but is one of the more unique movies based on non-fiction literature in recent memory.
The Big Short tells the story of different individuals who foresaw the 2007 credit and housing bubble collapse a couple years before the U.S. financial crisis got underway. Scion Capital LLC founder Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is among the first to recognize that mortgage lending practices during the early 2000s are faulty and sets out to profit by betting against the marketplace, based on these predictions. Despite his past success as a hedge fund manager, though, Burry is largely dismissed by his investors and not-so-quietly mocked by his clients (who believe the subprime market to be strong).
Soon thereafter, other individuals – including up and coming investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) as well as the outspoken hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and the scheming trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) – catch wind of these fraudulent activities in the financial sector and likewise set out to profit from it. However, the more these “outsiders” learn about these shady dealings, the more it becomes clear that corruption in Wall Street runs deeper than even they (or anyone else) could have imagined.
Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”, The Big Short takes liberties with the true story that inspired it, similar to previous movie adaptations of Lewis’ non-fiction writing (The Blind Side, Moneyball). What distinguishes The Big Short from its predecessors – or your average awards season release based on real events for that matter – is that the film openly (and gleefully) admits when it’s veering away from the very facts that inspired it. The Big Short has its flaws, but is one of the more unique movies based on non-fiction literature in recent memory, for these reasons.
The Big Short adapts Lewis’ non-fictional source material into a film that unfolds largely as a screwball comedy in the vein of David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees – in the sense that complicated terminology and jargon (here, involving the inner-workings of Wall Street as well as the credit and housing market) are explained through witty and rapid-fire dialogue delivered by the film’s characters. However, The Big Short is also part post-modern docudrama, in that the adapted script from director Adam McKay (Will Ferrell’s frequent collaborator and co-writer of Ant-Man) and Charles Randolph (Love and Other Drugs) uses storytelling devices like having characters onscreen frequently break the fourth wall – in order to explain to the audience when the movie is deviating from real-life events – and incorporating cutaways to famous celebrities, who help to explain what’s happening in the movie in simpler terms.
Still, the film’s transformation of Lewis’ not-so-cinematic source book into an engaging big screen narrative isn’t a complete success. The Big Short‘s comical interjections diminish the dramatic impact of story beats and take away from the character-driven threads in the movie, while those same running gags themselves are hit and miss. Nonetheless, McKay and Randolph’s eclectic screenwriting choices work when taken as a whole and allow The Big Short to carry-over the substance of its source material – at the same time, making it accessible to a larger audience than it might have been (if presented as a more conventional docudrama or even a straight-forward documentary).
Visually, McKay and his director of photography Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips) shot The Big Short in a “fly on the wall” documentary style, in order to give the proceedings a greater sense of verisimilitude. The film’s big name cast members are likewise dressed and presented to look more “ordinary,” with regard to their general appearances (see their haircuts, in particular). Although The Big Short isn’t as carefully-constructed a piece of cinéma vérité filmmaking as some of Ackroyd’s previous work, it still boasts solid craftsmanship overall. Indeed, were it not for the film’s comical cutaways and fourth wall breaking, The Big Short could pass for a real documentary, in terms of its aesthetics (which, for example, also includes montages of relevant real-world news reports and pop culture to better establish a sense of time and place).
The Big Short‘s cast further imbues the film with a sense of authenticity, by rising to the challenge of delivering their heavily technical dialogue at a snappy pace that keeps the banter feeling sharp (even when it’s difficult to tell exactly what they’re talking about). Christian Bale brings enough humanity and personality to the role of the brilliant, yet at the same time socially inept, Michael Burry to elevate the character above being a stereotype of a genius with (most likely) Aspergers. Meanwhile, Steve Carrell does some of his best dramatic work as the temperamental and emotionally volatile Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman), though Ryan Gosling is perhaps a bit too comically smarmy as Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippman) – partly because Gosling goes too far in channeling Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, while he doubles as the film’s narrator.
Despite what the film’s marketing would have you believe, Brad Pitt is not one of the leads in The Big Short; rather, he plays Ben Rickert (based on Ben Hockett), an ex-Wall Street investor who’s gone the opposite extreme – determined to live off the grid as much as feasible – but still advises the younger investors played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock (characters based on Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai, respectively). All three players in that story thread are strong though, as are the film’s side characters – which vary from eccentric and cartoonish (sometimes too much so) to more grounded in nature. The latter are brought to life by names like Oscar-winners Melissa Leo (The Fighter) and Marisa Tomei (The Ides of March) – with Rafe Spall (Life of Pi) and Jeremy Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) in particular serving up solid performances that get limited screen time, but are very much essential.
The Big Short is overall an entertaining big screen adaptation of non-fictional literature that bucks the popular trends of its genre by incorporating a number of ambitious and creative storytelling techniques. While the choices that McKay and his collaborators make don’t always work here, enough hit their mark for the filmmaker’s initial foray outside his comedic comfort zone to be considered a success, taken as a whole. As such, those who are interested in learning more about the story behind the 2007 financial crisis – or who have read Lewis’ original book and want to see how it translates to cinema – may well find The Big Short to be a compelling feature that offers fresh insight on the issue.
The Big Short is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 130 minutes long and is Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.
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