Until now, it was easy to pigeonhole Adam McKay. As a director, he had five features under his belt and every single one of them was designed as a goofy answer to the question “what would it be like if Will Ferrell played an [insert random occupation here]?” McKay’s answers led to Talladega Nights (Ferrell as a NASCAR driver!), Step Brothers (Ferrell as a man-child!), The Other Guys (Ferrell as a desk cop!) and two Anchorman movies (Ferrell as, well, you get it). McKay has been involved in other projects, but for the most part, he’s one of the guys most responsible for Ferrell’s dominance as a comedy superstar. Like Ferrell or not, that’s not a lot of variety for a director and not much to judge him on.
So it comes as something of a shock that McKay’s first non-Ferrell feature is not only a departure for the filmmaker, but also a manic collage of comic madness that tries to gut capitalism and both satirizes and satisfies America’s love of excess. The Big Short is McKay stripped of his usual glossy approach to comedy, now revelling in the sheer limitlessness of cinematic possibilities. At times, the pic looks like an editing room floor, all strips of moments and scenes snipped and trimmed into oblivion, assembled with an angsty energy that buzzes through every clip.
This is McKay’s response to the financial collapse of 2008 that left big banks in need of a government bailout and swindled many Americans out of their homes, pensions, and investments. It’s based on Michael Lewis’s non-fiction book of the same name and the narrative lasers in on a few Wall Street players who foresaw the collapse and bet against the banks when everyone was riding high on a wave of lofty loans.
The story quite adoringly makes heroes of these men as they go up against the behemoth banks and have to deal with everyone laughing behind their backs. Casting likable actors such as Steve Carell and Christian Bale helps ensure we’ll be on their side, rooting for their success every step of the way, and banks make a pretty easy-to-hate villain in today’s climate. But while the conflict and character arcs make for a simplified black-and-white story, it’s the telling that McKay has a particularly raucous amount of fun with.
Ryan Gosling repeatedly breaks the fourth wall as hotshot trader Jared Vennett, keeping us in the loop with what’s going on and generally being our guide through this knotted mess. Various other celebrities break the fourth wall too, making cameo appearances to explain bank terminology in layman’s terms. Frenetic editing sends us flitting all over the place, blasting us back through time or hurling us around the country. Everything is visualized, comically, crazily, constantly looking for ways to explain the impetus of the financial collapse, to chart its crafty creation, to expose the towering levels of greed that seeped into the system and now control it.
It’s basically a buzzing, hyperactive version of Charles Ferguson’s 2010 facts-and-figures-heavy documentary Inside Job, replacing graphs and academic explanations with Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table. McKay’s approach calls upon all media to create a strange experience that practically borders on hallucinogenic at times. He’s trying to make this serious subject fun and funny so that he can target a wide audience, but he’s also attempting to dig through some sort of mass media landfill, with sounds and images coming together from so many places and so many inspirations.
It’s not always entirely sensible, but it is an approach not often seen in mainstream cinema and it’s intriguing to see a filmmaker who’s been stuck in one mediocre place for so long at least put so much effort into trying something new. McKay has a good cast to walk us through the more traditionally plotted points of the picture, so even if none of the performances are memorable stand-outs, they’re all a contributing part of McKay’s take on rollicking rage.
The Big Short finds plenty of reasons to be angry and McKay is sure to keep the frustration at boiling point throughout so that the comedy doesn’t eclipse his ire. This proves a smart move because it certainly never feels like McKay is trivializing the subject, instead capturing how gravely important it is to understand what happened. Maintaining a dramatic backdrop to shine the comedy on allows McKay to stick to his deadly serious thesis without having to sacrifice his sense of play.
But comedy is McKay’s forte and The Big Short is at its best when it’s embracing the oddness on display with a sense of surreality. When a bunch of the main characters go to Vegas for a convention, their arrival is scored to the iconic organ-heavy theme from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. There are probably a million ways to interpret that song choice, but perhaps McKay just found it appropriately sinister. In that sense, it fits.
More than just the broad sense of comedy, The Big Short derives most of its power from its relentless energy, fashioned as an adrenaline-fuelled barrage of information and images. McKay packs so many thoughts, terms, facts, suggestions, and references into his movie that it works quite aggressively well in the moment. The downside to such an approach is that when the experience ends, its power feels fleeting. There’s a lack of resonance, a void that’s tough to fill when the strength of the movie lies in it being such a wacky mish-mash.
There’s also the issue of timing. Arriving so many years after the financial crisis reached catastrophic levels, McKay’s movie now finds itself preaching entirely to the choir and with little opportunity left to shock us despite the characters constantly wearing looks of shock on their faces whenever new information comes to light. And after all the no-holds-barred craziness he packs into nearly every frame, it’s certainly a bummer to see McKay resort to a conventional close with loads of text leaving us with a few final sombre stats to consider.
For all its roiling emotions and raw enthusiasm, The Big Short doesn’t quite achieve the lasting impact its angry approach would seem to suggest it’s aiming for. But it’s still a cleverly comical riff on a serious subject and a greatly entertaining assault on our senses. It’s nice to know that McKay has something more up his sleeve than further goofball Will Ferrell movies and it’s exciting to see him play with the comedy genre in a very different key and style than what we’ve previously seen him do.
McKay maturing as a filmmaker without losing his love of the silly and absurd seems like a win/win situation. Hopefully his passions continue to drive him to new heights. Despite its flaws, this pic has shown a new and exciting side of McKay and could prove to be a tough act to follow for him. He can’t simply make The Big Short 2, but whatever he does instead, at least now it seems fairly certain that we’re well beyond the possibility of an Anchorman 3.