Although it might not be obvious from movies like “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers,” Adam McKay is one of Hollywood’s most politically engaged directors, a fact that comes to the fore with “The Big Short,” an acidic comedy about the 2008 financial crisis that premiered at AFI Fest last night. (The film opens in theaters on December 11.) Adapting the nonfiction book by “Moneyball’s” Michael Lewis, McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph create a story that’s part truth and part fiction, mixing fictional composites with real-life characters and the occasional straight-up lesson in how the modern finance system works (or, more to the point, doesn’t). What Variety’s Andrew Barker calls “a spinach smoothie disguised skillfully disguised as junk food” and The Wrap’s Inkoo Kang approvingly dubs a “lecture-comedy,” “The Big Short” is an attempt to mix didacticism with flat-out farce, and if the first reviews are split on how well it achieves its aims, they’re generally in agreement that McKay has put the clout accrued from past hits to good use.
Even with the likes of Carell on board, and a number of fourth-wall-breaking celebrity cameos to liven up the proceedings when the film dives into explanations of how finance-sector hot shots nearly tanked the global economy by exploiting obscure loopholes in the law, “The Big Short” sometimes loses its comic edge. (The cast also includes Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Melissa Leo, none of whom are primarily known for doing comedy.) But then, that may be the point. While McKay is using comedy to address a serious subject, he’s too savvy to let audiences off the hook with laughter. For all the corporate bankruptcies and bailouts, few of the individuals who caused the crisis have faced serious repercussions, and “The Big Short’s” biggest job is to leave the audience facing that fact, and realizing the joke isn’t funny any more.
Reviews of “The Big Short”
Tim Grierson, Screen Daily
For those still enraged that the financial institutions which orchestrated the 2008 economic collapse walked away without punishment, “The Big Short” plays like a cleansing blast of outrage and scorn. Based on the 2010 Michael Lewis nonfiction book that chronicled the few individuals who foresaw theUS housing market crash — and decided to make a profit off it — this wildly entertaining satire can be uneven or strident at times, but director and co-writer Adam McKay taps into society’s pent-up frustration and anger at Wall Street arrogance and lets it burst forth over two very engaging hours. A fine cast led by Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt guides this stupendously sour comedy-drama, as McKay manages to make dry economic terminology engrossing while sticking to a grimly prescient central thesis – that the crooks who nearly brought down capitalism are still among us.
Andrew Barker, Variety
Of all the current century’s most cataclysmic world-historical events, the 2008 financial crisis is probably among the most poorly understood. Filmmakers looking to rectify this have already approached the story from a number of angles, from sober-minded documentary (“Inside Job”) to operatic boiler-room drama (“Margin Call”), but the route taken by “The Big Short” is by far the most radical, turning a dense economics lecture into a hyper-caffeinated postmodern farce, a spinach smoothie skillfully disguised as junk food. Taking style cues from hip-hop videos, Funny or Die clips and “The Office,” Adam McKay’s film hits its share of sour notes; some important plot points are nearly impossible for laypeople to decipher even with cheeky, fourth-wall-obliterating tutorials, and the combination of eye-crossing subject matter and nontraditional structure makes it a risky bet at the box office. But there’s an unmistakable, scathing sense of outrage behind the whole endeavor, and it’s impossible not to admire McKay’s reckless willingness to do everything short of jumping through flaming hoops on a motorcycle while reading aloud from Keynes if that’s what it takes to get people to finally pay attention.
Charlie Schmidlin, The Playlist
In adapting “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, it’s clear McKay has achieved his “Inception” — a studio-backed reward after a string of comedic hits like “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers.” He dabbles in genuine irreverence, political energy, and a formal inventiveness here that is a delight to see, and a constant surprise. To be certain, it’s a drama first with laughs throughout, but few other political dramas this year will feature Jenga as a plot device, use celebrity cameos as pointed commentary (go in unspoiled), or soundtrack a scene with Mastodon followed by the theme from “Phantom of the Opera.”
Inkoo Kang, The Wrap
For all the millions of jobs, houses, and pensions lost, though, talking about how the economy was set on a path to ruin is one of the surest ways to bore and confuse your audience. DirectorAdam McKay (“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” “The Other Guys,” “Step Brothers”) knows this, which is why he practically invents a whole new genre — let’s call it the lecture-comedy — for his latest film. The screenplay’s Niagara-like cascade of information is exhausting and impossible to keep up with, but its ambitious and innovative format serves both its subject matter and its dramatic core rather well. The one major misstep is in the restless camerawork, which bobs and weaves and zooms and zags with nausea-inducing regularity. (This might contribute to the headache.)
Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood
Adapted by erudite Charles Randolph (“Love & Other Drugs,” “The Interpreter”) and McKay from Lewis’ investigation of Wall Street malpractice, “The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine,” the film boasts a heady cast including Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei. McKay pitched himself to direct the project, and turns out to be a good match for what might seem impenetrable material about how increasingly complex mortgage derivatives led to the 2008 global economic crisis.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
While there is a certain undeniable fascination in watching the so-called experts go down while a few foresightful mavericks escape on self-made lifeboats, you can never escape the thought that Paramount probably made this film only because of the success of “The Wolf of Wall Street” two years ago and then recall how much better made and more entertaining that was than what’s onscreen here. In a manner that splits the difference between the jokey and the objectively serious, McKay tries to explain what all the arcane financial terms mean and ultimately comes down very hard on the selfish and larcenous executives who refused to confront the consequences of their practices before it was too late. And well he might. But both the behavior of the characters and the viewer responses sought are so repetitive and unchanging that it all becomes wearisome well before the far overlong feature wraps up.
THE BIG SHORT is the horror movie of the year.
— Keith Calder (@keithcalder) November 13, 2015
“They’re not confessing.” “They’re bragging.” THE BIG SHORT is the movie Adam McKay has been heading toward for some time, a scathing farce.
— Mark Olsen (@IndieFocus) November 13, 2015
The Big Short is a stylish, even slick, romp for its first 100 minutes, then an Inside Job-like punch in the gut for its last 20
— Steven Zeitchik (@ZeitchikLAT) November 13, 2015
THE BIG SHORT is wildly energetic, even fun, but I don’t want to meet the person who isn’t a little crushed by how little has changed.
— Russ Fischer (@russfischer) November 13, 2015
“The Big Short” sort of bends over backwards to be irreverent. It’s better when it sobers up.
— Kristopher Tapley (@kristapley) November 13, 2015
THE BIG SHORT is sturdy, strong, surprising, and smart. It’s almost like an Adam McKay take on a Bennett Miller movie.
— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) November 13, 2015
Adam McKay did the impossible with The Big Short: he made a movie better than Step Brothers.
— Jack Giroux (@JackGi) November 13, 2015
“Big Short” is about vultures who at least have the good taste to sometimes feel bad about being vultures, which the movie is smug about.
— Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint) November 13, 2015
Adam McKay channels Michael Moore in mortgage crisis expose The Big Short: equal parts anger and humor. Great cast too.
— Matthew Belloni (@THRMattBelloni) November 13, 2015