The Big Short, a film by Adam McKay, simultaneously targeted viewers’ funny bones and guts by encouraging us to laugh as we sink into deep depression. This 2015 Best Picture nominee captures the 2008 Economic Crisis from the perspective of the few who actually saw it coming, that is, the very few. McKay, most known for his films Anchorman, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, took on the project by adapting the non-fiction book, Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis. As a result, McKay created a box office hit, scored five Oscar nominations, and walked away Best Adapted Screenplay. The Big Short captures the moment the curtain rose and revealed America’s corrupt housing market, doomsday economy, and the apparent ‘miscalculation no one saw coming’ that kicked millions of people out of their homes and jobs. So, that’s a blast and a half to watch. Yet somehow McKay’s comedic lens and sharp sense of direction composes a film that captivates the audience and shares this unbelievably true story. His perception of comedy created a masterpiece that not only amused us, but taught us something.
McKay’s filmography includes a many Will Ferrell films, which in turn means, a many moments running around in tighty-whiteys, placing genitals on drum sets, and a sing along of “Pimps and Hoes”. Although his plotlines are not always logical and offer comedic scenes that resonate with all viewers, he takes risks in his comedic choices, which personally, I admire as an aspiring screenwriter. Rather than cop out with a joke that’s been seen time and time again, McKay goes out on a limb for a laugh. Whether or not he gets it, that’s a different story, but he never shies away from a challenge. That being said, McKay’s decision to take on such a prestigious project came as a bit of a shock for critics, yet he utilized his skills and daring vision to pull off such an ambitious project. Working with an A-List cast while adapting a noteworthy and critical story, McKay manages to not only create a successful film, but shake up his image in filmmaking.
In addition to utilizing his comedic background, McKay approaches The Big Short by manipulating traditional screenplay structure to achieve laughs and creative a cohesive story. The comedy director’s approach to The Big Short intertwines his typical comedic elements, while simultaneously weaving in the points that make for an excellent screenplay. To explain such a complicated economic crisis to audiences, the film features several moments of breaking the fourth wall, in which either characters, or real-life celebrities, addressed the audience directly. Earlier films reveal his pattern for ‘celebrity awareness’, meaning that McKay is not afraid to either call out or include an A-Lister (ie ‘Help me Tom Cruise!’ or having Dwayne Johnson leap off a building). By including an array of eccentric celebrities, he has, yet again, grabbed our attention. We first meet Margot Robbie early on the film. As she sits covered in bubbles in her ocean-side hot tub, she breaks down the phrase ‘subprime mortgages’ into a metaphor (‘that means they are essentially shit’). Now for someone like me who runs away from big economic terms, this was extraordinarily helpful. I felt confident as the film continued, understanding the Wall Street lingo and why exactly these decisions being made hurt the housing market. He threads in more of these moments featuring chef Anthony Bourdain and popstar Selena Gomez, and Ryan Gosling’s character. And watching sweet Anthony Bourdain make soup, that’s just a great day in itself.
Arguably, McKay depicts each of our principle characters through a realistic lens, which at times is moderately disturbing. You have Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale, who has a glass eye from a childhood accident, no social skills, and an innate instinct for numbers and patterns. Mark Baum, played by Steve Carrell, who speaks as though he always has his headphones in. Baum lost his brother to suicide and refuses to acknowledge his emotions, quit his job, or really try anything different because he loves his job. Lastly, you have Jared Vennett, played by Ryan Gosling, who is the polar opposite of his leading role in Drive, because he literally cannot shut up. Vennett plays your typical finance douchebag, apart from one outstanding difference: he’s right.
These characters, among many other supporting ones, are referenced as ‘the outsiders.’ The few who saw the crash before it happened. Now to be Chicken Little, you are most likely a bit strange, paranoid, and hold a lot of power when you turn out to be right. Part of the strength in McKay’s creation is his ability to portray such cringe-worthy characters that keep their bare feet on their desks, uses children’s toy blocks to explain the Stock Market, and interpreting grief counseling sessions on a weekly basis. And I don’t know about you reader, but I do something stupid or awkward on the daily, therefore I actually sympathized with these guys, knowing their pretty weird, but maybe they’re onto something. And no one listens to the guy with the Supercuts hairstyle, right?
Wrong, we do. Well as the viewer, you kind of have to. McKay raises the conflict to an incredibly tense point, where you find yourself rooting for these people, who are not necessarily our heroes, but they are the only characters who considered to look left when everyone else looked right. As shit hits the fan, we as the viewer understand our economy crisis and doubt literally anyone in charge. Empty houses in Florida, loans knowingly awarded to people who can never pay them back, and companies that knew better and acted otherwise. When I saw this film last winter, I remember everyone in the theater collectively gasped as we heard an Exotic Dancer tell Mark Baum that she has five houses. Five. Nobody knew a thing and they wanted it to be that easy.
More so than the obvious comedic elements threaded into the script and character choices, the entirety of The Big Short walks a fine line between laughter and drama, which is the most thoughtful way of telling this story. This film triggers painful memories for many viewers. Jobs lost, houses lost, futures crumbled. To hear someone phrase the 2008 Economic Crisis as a comedy could be extremely offensive, yet, to just see another drama telling a dark and depressing story, do we really want to put ourselves through that? Comedy is truth, and the truth is this: People in high positions turned their heads when they knew, deep down, that all this would explode in our faces one day. A select number of people saw it coming, tried to warn others, and then said fuck it, I’ll profit off of other people’s misfortunes. Not funny when you say it like that, and perhaps I grabbed your attention, but do you care or want to learn more? By portraying this story with humorous moments, quirks, music choices, etc. you can stomach the fact that we suffered such a loss.
Given the shit-storm that is 2016, this might be a hard film to watch right now. But Netflix decided to put it up for grabs, and I care enough to write about it. Because of McKay’s gift for comedy, he gives us a challenging story that somehow makes us laugh and walk away with a better understanding of what exactly happened eight years ago. As you watch this film you can be engaged in the humor and understand the exact step by step process of what tore apart our nation. It’s important to form your own opinion and learn something from a crisis, something I’ve been struggling with myself. And to watch these men capitalize on a bad situation, well, it’s corrupt and tragic, but maybe history will teach us something. And right now, that’s the first step we will need to take.