‘The Big Short’ Aims High But Falls Short

Approaching the world financial meltdown of 2008 with a cheeky style and a towering accumulation of moral outrage, director/co-writer Adam McKay tries to turn Modern Economics 101 into a piece of mainstream entertainment …and nearly succeeds. But there are two fundamental problems with The Big Short: the subject is dense and hard to understand, and despite a handful of charismatic stars, there’s no one to root for.

Steve Carell-The Big Short

Photo by Jaap Buitendijk – Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

That, of course, is McKay’s point. The purported good guys who saw that the economic bubble was about to burst—lone wolves in the financial world like iconoclastic Christian Bale, insolent Steve Carell, cocky Ryan Gosling, and coolly removed Brad Pitt—mocked and shut out by their colleagues and superiors, wound up betting against the American economy and profited as the world around them shattered.

Curious heroes, indeed.

McKay goes so far as to recruit pop figures like Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez to talk directly to us in the audience and try to explain some of the complexities of Wall Street doublespeak. It’s a mildly amusing gimmick but it doesn’t solve the inherent issue: this stuff was intended to be confusing.


Ryan Gosling-The Big Short

Photo by Jaap Buitendijk – Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Big Short is based on a book by financial journalist Michael Lewis, who gave us Moneyball and The Blind Side. Filmmaker McKay is best known for broad comedies like Anchorman, made with his longtime partner Will Ferrell. He and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph score points for trying to dramatize events leading up to the economic crisis of ’08 and express the kind of indignation we all feel. But even the basics of this story are difficult to follow and sometimes downright impenetrable. This limits the film’s ability to engage us in what is intended as a grimly comic farce.

To its credit, The Big Short is never dull, but it misses the mark. If you want to understand how our economy was manipulated, I’d recommend Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job. It may not be funny, but it documents the situation as clearly as possible—and leaves you wanting to storm the battlements of Wall Street and Washington.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024