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The Big Short turns the financial collapse into an angry, funny, sad underdog story

It's not perfect, but it's still essential viewing.

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling face off in The Big Short.
Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling face off in The Big Short.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

By far the most interesting thing about The Big Short is how it gets you to root for catastrophe.

Based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, the film — which is set between 2005 and 2008 and tells the story of men who saw the financial collapse coming and bet big on it — is by no means perfect. It sometimes feels like an audiovisual assault, pummeling you with information until you cry uncle. But in some ways, that's the point: Here's all the stuff that prevented you from noticing the world was about to fall apart. (We'll have more to say about The Big Short when it opens wide on December 23. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 11.)



Director Adam McKay comes from the world of comedy; he's probably most famous for the Anchorman films. So as you'd expect, the movie is filled with great, hilarious moments and scenes where characters joke around or even dig into the absurdity of their situation. But he also understands how closely twinned humor can be with anger, and as the film goes on — and the apocalypse lurches closer — it gradually drains of anything that might be called leavening.

That's a clue as to what makes The Big Short so good: It's filled with contradictions that make it a stronger film. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph embrace the idea that this movie is going to horrify a lot of people. But in the midst of that reaction, they might also get you to think about how and why Americans value what they value — and what can happen when we don't check those impulses.

Here are the five contradictions at the heart of The Big Short.

1) This is a feel-good, underdog story about the end of the world

The Big Short Paramount

The men The Big Short celebrates didn't cause the financial crisis. Instead, they had the foresight to know it was coming and bet big on it happening — which meant they ultimately made substantial amounts of money.

These men are played by such Hollywood luminaries as Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt, the sorts of actors we're used to rooting for in other films. And indeed, McKay and Randolph structure their screenplay like a traditional underdog story, where the guys nobody believes in come from behind to win the big game. Except in this case, "winning the big game" means that our "heroes" were right, and the world really is about to experience a gigantic financial collapse.

This aspect of the film has earned plenty of criticism. Is The Big Short asking you to cheer for monsters? When I watched it, I experienced a disquieting feeling right around the middle of the movie: I was excited for something to happen that would ruin the lives of millions (including past me), simply because McKay and Randolph had so skillfully aped something like Rocky.

But I think this is key to what makes The Big Short work. For one thing, it doesn't focus on the architects of the crisis. Instead, it uses those who saw it coming to argue that many of the people who caused the crisis didn't even realize what they were doing. That's an inherent imbalance in the system, and it makes sense to want to see it undone.

What's more, the "underdog" setup is central to the film's most core idea. The narratives we most often sell to ourselves as Americans — including ideas like capitalism is always a great thing and should be allowed to run pretty much unchecked, or gutsy underdogs are the best kinds of heroes — are narratives we need to examine more closely. Sometimes the underdog is betting on something that will destroy lives.

2) The Big Short is about finance, but it's shot like a Bourne film

At its best, The Big Short feels a little like a lost script by the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (who penned Network, among many others), filmed in the style of The Bourne Identity. It's about something we think of as "boring," but it aims to code that boring story with the most exciting filmmaking techniques imaginable.

McKay utilizes lots of quick, gritty close-ups, and his camera often feels unsteady, especially in the film's second half, as the men at the center of the story come to believe the system has been rigged against them — and the people of the world.

Hank Corwin's editing sometimes feels more like free association than strict point-A-to-point-B storytelling. He'll drop in a montage of weird pop culture moments from 2006 to remind you of what was keeping us distracted at the time, or he and McKay will toss in a quick sidebar meant to help us better understand a complicated financial concept. Characters speak directly to the camera. Famous people pause the action to explain the poisonous concepts that created the crisis. The Big Short never wants you to be bored — because its message is so urgent.

3) This is a riotous comedy, shot through with anger, that eventually gets really sad

Comedy and anger taste great together. Lewis Black could tell you that, and they're paired up at the center of many of the greatest satires. But the angry comedy has a bit of a bad reputation, because it's so, so easy for things to go wrong, and for a film to become a righteous screed that doesn't know how to stop hectoring the audience.

To be sure, it sometimes feels as if McKay and Randolph are poised to tip over into the film equivalent of that guy who rants on Facebook about the horrors of life itself. In the early going, the film is frequently, incredibly funny, especially when focused on Carell's character, Mark — the closest thing it has to a conscience — and his team of financial outcasts and oddballs, who boast the energy of one of McKay's other bro comedy ensembles. But as it reaches its midpoint, the characters have grown so strident about what they know must be coming that it can feel a little exhausting.

Fortunately, The Big Short rights itself. Eventually, its humor and anger fade, replaced by frustration, confusion, and sadness. The most memorable shot that McKay and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd cook up comes very late in the film, when Mark realizes how much money he's made from something that has trampled so many lives. The camera pulls back to a wide view of behemoth Manhattan skyscrapers looming over him; it's a single, still moment of serene dread amid the chaos that's meant to make you a little nauseated.

4) There's lots of tension, even as you know what's coming

Christian Bale in The Big Short.
Christian Bale plays a man who guesses the financial collapse is coming years before it happens.

The Big Short acknowledges early and often that the financial system is about to fall to ruin. It knows you know this. It doesn't try to hide the inevitable or wring false tension from it.

What's impressive, then, is how much tension the film does find in this scenario, mostly from the characters it's centered on. Bale, for instance, plays a man named Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager who was one of the earliest to realize what was about to happen to the housing market — and, subsequently, the entire financial system. As Michael bets more and more of his investors' money on his seemingly quixotic quest, you actually find yourself queasily wondering if everything will fall apart in time to redeem him in the eyes of those who've given him money.

Pitt's character, a disillusioned former Wall Street guy named Ben Rickert, wrings similar tension out of the situation, because he's not only fairly positive that the system's going to collapse — he's pretty sure it's unsustainable in the long term. Of course, we now know he was right about the former; so far, he hasn't been right about the latter. But that doesn't mean he couldn't be.

5) This is a left-leaning movie about right-leaning heroes

The Wall Street finance genius is the closest thing American fiction has to a truly conservative hero. These types tend to succeed via their own ingenuity and wits, and if anybody's trying to stop them, it's usually the government or some regulatory agency contained therein. They earn extra points if everybody thinks they're wrong for a while before realizing just how right they are.

Yet The Big Short — which celebrates figures exactly like those described above — leans way, way left. It doesn't argue for the complete and total abandonment of capitalism, but you get the sense that if it had run for another half-hour, it just might have. It wants to recognize the guys who got it right, while also understanding they're part of a system that, as a whole, got it very, very wrong — and it's frustrated and angry about how little has been done to fix that system and all of the lives destroyed by it.

Still, the film should be easily enjoyed by those of all political stripes. Its ultimate villain isn't "the government" or "the evil bankers." No, its ultimate villain is the combination of incompetence and stupidity; it's anybody who thinks things can't change or get worse because it's convenient to believe as much. And as the movie makes clear, people like that can thrive in any system imaginable, public or private.

The Big Short is, ultimately, an argument that sometimes it's worth listening to the pessimists and prophets of doom, particularly if they can tell you a joke as they're predicting the apocalypse.

The Big Short is playing in New York and Los Angeles. It will be everywhere December 23.

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