'The Big Short' review: Drama finds comedy, tragedy in the financial crisis
The adage "comedy is tragedy plus time" absolutely captures the tone and tenor of "The Big Short" (which screened at AFI FEST 2015 and opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 23). This impassioned and biting take down of the financial institutions that nearly capsized the economy is one of the smartest comedies of the 2015.
In short: Four Wall Street outsiders (played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt) separately predict the imminent collapse of the credit bubble. While no one believes their claims, they bet against the financial system - and they stand to make a fortune off the financial crisis. (Watch the trailer)
"The Big Short" film tackles the slow-motion horror of the financial crisis with a sensibility that walks the fine line between flippantly glib and righteous indignation. It miraculously wraps its arms around the complexities of the housing crisis while mining big laughs from one of the least funny events in recent U.S. history.
To be clear: "The Big Short" does not find humor in the tragedy unleashed in the collapse of the housing bubble. To the contrary, the film makes a point to directly show the human cost of the economic collapse. This film screams with an obvious frustration, wondering quite pointedly "how could we have missed all the signs and why aren't federal prisons filled with stock market traders?" The comedy is directly connected to incredulous shock that the housing collapse could have been avoided, but absolutely nothing was done to prevent it.
The driving force behind the apparent disbelief and humor of "The Big Short" is its eccentric lot of characters -- who are generally honest to a fault, skeptical of the lack of oversight and absolutely confident in their grim predictions. This film works to convince all four main characters that an economic collapse is not only inevitable - it is imminent.
Miraculously, "The Big Short" isn't merely furious and funny - it's also pretty educational. While the film glosses over many of the complex financial intricacies that led up to the housing crisis, "The Big Short" serves as a very accessible "Housing Crisis 101" course. It doesn't hurt that the movie resorts to "Margot Robbie in a bubble bath" or "Selena Gomez at a casino" to quickly bring the audience up to speed on topics such as sub-prime loans or credit default swaps.
While "The Big Short" masters its tone, the film does not offer much in the way of dramatic or character arc. If anything, its reliance on flippant (if funny) hindsight-based storytelling undermines dramatic tension and limits how far the characters can possibly evolve. We all know how the housing crisis ended -- the film sometimes belabors the "why is this being allowed to happen!?" theme a bit too long to remain effective. Despite its impressive ensemble cast, only Bale and Gosling get a chance to shine - Carell does his best to keep up and Pitt barely has a character to work with. Admittedly, the film does take on a preachy tone - one that feels somewhat unearned, as the movie abruptly becomes concerned with the 99 percent in its closing moments.
Final verdict: This well-written and well-acted docudrama is as grimly hilarious as it is genuinely angry, directing its vitriol squarely at the high-finance apparatus.
"The Big Short" screened at AFI FEST 2015 and opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 23. This film has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.