It’s odd to have reached the age where they’re making movies about events that I remember as an adult. Zero Dark Thirty, Spotlight . . . and this one. In a way, it seems like that ought to rob the movies of their impact; I walked into The Big Short with a good 90% of the information they share here already in my knowledge bank. But some things retain their power to shock and startle, no matter how many times you hear them. The financial crisis of 2008 is one of those things. I really loved this movie a lot. The cast was nothing short of excellent. Bale is reliably good; Steve Carell is really quite wonderful; Ryan Gosling is maybe the standout for me, practically unrecognizable in a slimy role. And it has a glut of amazing performances from day players: Karen Gillan as a girl on her way up in the industry; Byron Mann as a repulsive, arrogant owner of a CDO business; Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen as a pair of amoral, super-bro mortgage brokers; Melissa Leo as a woman from a rating agency. McKay’s direction is also really great. Apparently, he got this film by doing Anchorman 2; I hated Anchorman 2, but it’s a good trade and McKay’s Oscar nomination is deserved, I think.
The film is sometimes a bit too on the nose, as when Melissa Leo’s character shows up and she’s suffering from literal blindness. Yes, we get it. And the gimmick of having celebrities pop up and break the fourth wall to explain financial concepts to the audience is . . . well, too gimmicky, though the final one with Selena Gomez was actually the best of the bunch.
But I loved the movie really and I found that it had a really good sense of tone. It begins with some comedic energy for certain, though the film isn’t actually a comedy, and it has the energy and spark of a good heist movie. But by the time the film ends, it’s turned into a bitter pill to swallow. When the enormity of the collapse finally starts to hit home to the characters, it really got to me; I remember, as I said, living through these days and this film really took me back to the fear and uncertainty of that time and as the film lets the crisis play out in front of us again, it just piled up again in a serious way. Watching the world collapse is harrowing in this film, for the characters and the audience. The film is ultimately weary, not angry; bitter, not enraged. But it lands like a ton of bricks and, in the end, the fact that the main characters of this film won doesn’t even feel like a triumph. When Bale’s character writes down the net profit his fund has made and then walks out the door, it’s a win that feels like the most devastating of defeats, a triumph of foresight translated into a brutal defeat in the present. 4 stars.
tl;dr – incredibly great ensemble brings the story of the financial crisis to life in this high-energy, entertaining film; but the lasting sting of the film’s third act elevates it even more. 4 stars.