I have an unfortunate habit when it comes to film criticism where I read filmmakers’ political views into films when they may not even be present in the first place, with me normally taking against a film for it arguably presenting a right-wing point of view. Blame my journalism degree. The Big Short is unambiguously a left-wing movie; it is a critique of capitalism, portraying Wall Street’s most heartless money men as dumb jocks who care about nothing more than strippers and nice cars. Despite a well-intentioned thesis statement ,the movie never becomes the film it initially suggests it is going to be – another outrageous Wolf of Wall Street style romp through financial negligence. Sure, there are plenty of jokes here, but they predominantly fall flat.
Director Adam McKay has previously made some of the best low-brow comedies of the modern era with his recurrent muse Will Ferrell; as bizarre as they often were, there was a real socio-political sting to both The Other Guys and Anchorman 2 that hasn’t translated into his first dramatic feature. McKay is the only comedy director who can be relied upon to get great improvisation from his actors – there is a reason multiple versions of Anchorman exist, with completely different narratives. These tours into high-concept, high-budget surrealism feel nowhere near as masturbatory as you would expect. He has an inventive mind and can effortlessly build a narrative around silliness.
With the exception of former collaborator Steve Carrell (the best thing here due to already having committed to McKay’s brand of Improv comedy before), the top-billed actors give weak performances. As dramatic actors, they aren’t as trained in comedy when it requires them to go off-script; Ryan Gosling’s performance reeks of bad improv, whereas Christian Bale barely tries, giving an inexplicably Oscar-nominated performance doing nothing but a Rain Man impression for the entire running time. It becomes hard to tell whether or not a scene is scripted or improvised due to the awkward nature of these central performances. Brad Pitt barely makes an impression, showing up in the “voice of reason” role he did better in 12 Years a Slave; a pointless cameo he has chosen simply as he is a producer on the film.
The zaniness feels more tightly scripted than McKay’s earlier films, which makes it feel more calculated and far more irritating; fourth-wall breaking, random Family Guy-style cutaways to irrelevant celebrities explaining the plot to the more idiotic members of the audience. It is a film that wants to go in-depth about its subject matter, yet frequently condescends to the audience by suggesting we won’t “get” anything unless its explained by Selena Gomez at a poker table or Margot Robbie in a bubble bath. The movie becomes as dumb as the Wall Street bankers it is criticising for their stupidity.
Even though this is intended as another comedy, it is clearly McKay’s first attempt at serious filmmaking – and bizarrely, a jarring influence of French New Wave cool has been inexplicably applied to connote his said seriousness. For example, random images from pop-culture and clips from YouTube videos sporadically appear onscreen for no clear reason; why we are at one point subjected to a bizarre cover version of Nirvana’s Lithium (amongst other randomly selected footage) is honestly a mystery. He doesn’t even apply it in a cinematic way; images from pop-culture and news from the era is shown in 360p videos and low-res photos that are zoomed into using IMovie’s “Ken Burns effect”. It feels like inept filmmaking, both technically and in terms of what it adds to the narrative.
Aside from the piss-poor editing, the sound editing and mixing may be the worst I’ve ever heard in a critically acclaimed mainstream film. This may sound like I’m clutching at straws, but when the story is told in such a technically poor manner, it makes the story itself less appealing no matter what the contents. Random songs abruptly begin and finish playing (only to abruptly start again) repeatedly on the soundtrack; a scene of Christian Bale in a meeting is interrupted by a rap song I presume is called “shake your money maker”. The song drowns out the dialogue, stopping and starting again in the middle of random words – for no clear reason, we are then shown the music video for the song as well. You may notice I’m not talking much about the narrative; it is very hard to get invested in it when the film around it is so technically (for want of a better word) shit, McKay just adding random things to the movie that merely seem testing on the audience who want him to just get on with telling the story. It would make sense in a late period Jean-Luc Goddard movie, but in a big budget Hollywood movie telling a conventional narrative, it has no place.
I left The Big Short desperate to read the book upon which the film was based, as I could clearly see the power in viewing the financial crisis from these viewpoints. But the film is a failure, one whose Oscar nominations are entirely inexplicable. It tries to be visually innovative but just feels technically inept, tries to be funny but just feels too forced (a character played by Rafe Spall is introduced talking about his ballsack, for no reason) and in the final act demands we get angry about a narrative the film hasn’t given any reason for us to get invested in. The Big Short is a big missed opportunity for some incendiary filmmaking, its simplification of the financial world for the mainstream audience ensuring we never get fully under the skin of a tale that should make our generation rightfully angry.