Who is the hero of The Big Short, the semi-comedic semi-drama about the implosion of the housing market and the rise of those who profited from it? Is it “Dr.” Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the hedge-fund manager who first noticed the subprime mortgages’ soft underbelly? Is it Mark Baum (Steve Carell), another hedge-fund manager who carries around deep fury about the state of the system and the suicide of his brother? Is it Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), former Wall Street wolf turned retired Jedi of finance? To me, the hero of this bulging package of facts and jokes is its film editor, Hank Corwin. Since his baptism of fire on such teeming Oliver Stone hornets’ nests as JFK and Natural Born Killers, Corwin has worked selectively, adding two Terrence Malick epics to his resumé, and he cuts The Big Short with his usual instinct for allusive, propulsive storytelling, moving us along at a clip yet not too fast to process everything.
Clarity is needed with a dense story like this one, as well as an unfailing eye for the telling detail and the amusing sidebar. The director, Adam McKay, is a veteran of several Will Ferrell comedies, but he showed in The Other Guys that he had things to say about the rich soaking the poor with Ponzi schemes, and here he sharpens his blade anew. I don’t know that McKay should go on being Hollywood’s fiduciary moralist, but he’s clearly on the side of the angels and of the entertainers. On a few occasions, he recruits a random celeb to explain something or another to us, such as when collateralized debt obligations are likened to seafood stew. Like Stone’s two Wall Street sermons, The Big Short has been made for “the average people” who, says the irked Mark Baum, will be the ones paying for the banks’ fraudulence and hubris, even if we didn’t then (in 2008, when Michael Burry’s predictions came to pass) know how, or why.
We find out how and why, with the help of a cast gnawing hungrily on cynical, profane dialogue. Rageaholic Baum gets all the wounded humanity Steve Carell can bring to him, and Christian Bale makes Burry the awkward, blinkered loner that Patrick Bateman or Bruce Wayne would be in real life. Ryan Gosling swoops in as our narrator, a trader who hears about Burry’s calculations and gets Baum and his firm in on the scavenging. Gosling’s usual smugness works for the role; he sometimes addresses the camera and acknowledges what a prick we must think he is. This is primarily a male-id movie, though Marisa Tomei (as Baum’s wife) and Melissa Leo (as a banker who grudgingly drops some truth on Baum) brighten things. The film is, I admit, too busy working out how to explain why a man who pays his rent ends up living in his car to bother much with gender parity. Maybe next time.
The Big Short starts out antic and satirical (though it doesn’t reach the Homeric excesses of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street) but eventually spirals down into a spun-out sigh of resignation. Brad Pitt — more Robert Redford-like than ever in his tousled hairdo and salt-and-pepper beard — at one point turns to two ecstatic young investors and reminds them that their fortune will be built on the backs of real, suffering people who, if the economy tanks, will lose their jobs, their homes, maybe their lives. It’s a sobering reality blast, and we see Mark Baum almost horizontal with despair and Michael Burry lamenting that “nobody will talk to me, except through lawyers,” both much, much richer but that much less happy. An additional chilling piece of information: at the end, we’re told that Burry, the man who against all accepted wisdom bet against the economy and prospered, is now investing primarily in water. Is Burry betting that we’re headed for a grim meathook future á la Mad Max? A bit of research shows his reasoning is less ominous and more optimistic than that, but the factoid still leaves us with a shudder. Who else out there knows important, disquieting things and isn’t being listened to?