It’s not that the entire career of Adam McKay makes it appear that he’s have no interest in, much less facility for, an adaptation of The Big Short, Michael Lewis’s fury-stirring 2010 book about the fiscal malfeasance that precipitated the real estate collapse of 2007. Time as a head writer of Saturday Night Live is inked into his resume, meaning there’s got to be at least some amount of political awareness in his skill set, and the Funny or Die website, which he co-founded, has demonstrated a regular willingness to use broad, hooky gags as a delivery vessel for pointed, shrewd commentary. But there’s nothing he’s done when the screen is large that suggests he’s a sound choice to write and direct a film that burrows into the thorny snarl of the banking industry, which, as a character in the film version of The Big Short notes, has been deliberately constructed to be confusing enough to dissuade scrutiny. This is the sixth feature McKay has directed, but the first that doesn’t feature Will Ferrell in the lead. That detail is telling.
McKay, along with co-credited screenwriter Charles Randolph, decides to come at the material with his comedic sensibilities fully intact. Individual scenes play out as if the goal was to find a way to invest complicated situations with the rhythms of a sitcom. And yet, McKay doesn’t compromise the actual facts, presenting with the brutal honesty the rigors undertaking by an overly insular and co-dependent financial system, within which even the regulators are loathe to call out the misdeeds for fear of having their own bottom lines decimated. Following the storylines of Lewis’s book, McKay largely focuses in on a handful of individuals who correctly predicted the bubble was about to burst, taking advantage of a messed up system that allows them to accumulate wealth by effectively betting against the U.S. economy. One of the most intriguing results of this is that the film puts justified righteous fury into the psyches of men — and, make no mistake, it’s basically all men — who themselves are profiting mightily from disastrous decisions that ran roughshod over the security of countless people whose modest, workaday contributions allow the system to spin like a turbine and spin out garish riches for those who have no conscious. The hypocrisy is noted, and it gives the film a welcome edge.
If McKay’s sensibility is sound, some of his methodology is wobbly. Almost as if the pressure to prove his mettle weighed too heavily on decisions, McKay is prone to over-direction, peppering sequences with a kinetic hash of timeline signifiers or favoring the jittery imagery of handheld cameras. Some conceits work shockingly well, such as a conceit of breaking the fourth wall in creative ways to explain the most complex chicanery of the banking industry, while others are more problematic, as when Ryan Gosling’s smug investment banker addressed the camera directly, oozing swagger in a way that too clearly recalls Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. That flaw also speaks to a general lack of consistency on McKay’s part. While many performances are sharp and inspired (Steve Carell as a trader with a sometimes self-defeating inclination towards justice, Christian Bale as a peculiar hedge fund overseer whose ingrained obsessiveness helps him become one of the first to spot the festering boils of the housing market), there are just enough that are outright clumsy (Gosling, most prominently) that it’s hard not to think that McKay’s stuff-it-all-in comedies have dulled his discerning eye.
I’ll admit, though, the problems appear more slight when held up against the ambition of the film. The Big Short spins material usually best served by punch-throwing documentaries into the stuff of popping entertainment. It’s imperfect, to be sure. To be overly critical requires ignoring the remarkable degree of difficulty in what McKay and his filmmaking collaborators are attempting. They deserve precisely the sort of charitable understanding that was damnably absent from the crooks the film rightly condemns.