From the Archives: The Big Short review

From the Archives: The Big Short review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

With The Big Short, Adam McKay has done something kind of amazing. He’s made an angry, relevant film that bursts at the seams (of which there are few) with personality and vitriol (of which there is an unending supply). He has taken one of the more troubling and cryptic aspects of the past decade or so of American life and made it accessible, explosive, and marvelously entertaining. He has proven his worth as much more than just a director of silly comedies, and has amassed an incredible pool of talent, both A-listers and unknowns, to do his bidding. The Big Short is a calling card for a filmmaker stepping up to the plate in his first game as a big league player, and while the film itself is not quite a home run, it’s a solid line drive past center.

The Big Short tells, in so many connected stories, the tale of the great American housing crisis of the mid-2000s and the men who decided to stick it to the banks at fault, and potentially make a profit doing so. Based on the book by Michael Lewis (The Blind SideMoneyball), and adapted by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, the script makes an attempt to cut through the purposefully convoluted doublespeak which, it’s purported, was one of the biggest factors employed in fooling average Americans to confidently overspend on terrible investments. This doesn’t mean that the film speaks down to its audience. It’s actually much the opposite. As is the case with “insider talk” movies, viewers are invited to to do their best to keep up, using context – and eventually, comedy – to explain anything too verbose for the common man.


The biggest asset of having McKay on board is that his history with genre-defying comedy has given him much practice in the use of novelty as a tool rather than, well, a novelty. At an early point in the movie, a roomful of fast-talkers are discussing the creation of CDOs, but right when it gets to be a bit hard to follow, the fourth wall is broken, and the concept of a CDO is explained in an aside featuring Margot Robbie in a hot tub, sensually sipping a glass of champagne. And like that we are dropped right back into the narrative with a layman’s understanding of a CDO and enough humorous goodwill to squelch the anger that comes with finding out precisely how big a scam a CDO is.

Whether it’s one of these educational asides from a humorous cameo or Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett explaining credit default swaps to a group of investors using a Jenga set, The Big Short keeps the narrative popping for a wealth of the run time. It does dip during the second to third act transition, but there are enough compelling performances (and residual anger toward the subject matter) to smooth over the problem areas well enough. Of the performances from a large ensemble cast, Steve Carrell is unsurprisingly the highlight, both due to his own talent and his history with McKay – at the Q&A which occurred after the screening, McKay remarked at Carrell’s obsessive approach to developing his characters, be they investors or be they weathermen who love lamp.

He is not alone, and much like its more somber counterpart, SpotlightThe Big Short gives an even amount of screen time to all of its stars. Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Marissa Tomei are the big names in a sea of fresh faces, but none are front and center. It’s a smart choice not to elevate a single player, and it allows for the true main character, the housing crisis itself, to remain the focus of the film.

It’s not a film for everyone, due to its desire to elevate the audience rather than reduce the material. But such a goal is admirable. The Big Short is dutiful like that: not only does it wish for us to know precisely how the real estate collapse occurred, it posits that we deserve to know. And we do. It’s much easier to learn when you’re laughing.

The Big Short is now playing in Philly area theaters.

Official site.

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