Non-fiction writer Michael Lewis has an amazing track record for bestsellers turned into commercial Oscar contenders, from “The Blind Side” to “Moneyball.” Add “The Big Short” to that list. Because he finds vivid characters to lead us through complex stories that reveal how our (corrupt) world functions, Lewis’s books work on film.
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. Plan B’s Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, McKay and Paramount kept the budget low ($28 million)— the cast did not get their usual rates—in order to get away with the risk of a brainy movie that plays to the educated side of the moviegoing public, which includes the Hollywood Foreign Press (which nominated the film for four Golden Globes) and the Academy.
The book did better than Lewis (who started out as a Bond salesman and wrote business books “The New New Thing,” “Liar’s Poker,” “Boomerang” and “Flash Boys”) expected, because it answered the question of what happened to cause the Wall Street meltdown and raises moral and ethical concerns about the health and oversight of our financial systems. “The U.S. stock market is rigged,” said Lewis on Charlie Rose (below).
While this shaggily framed comedy (shot by verite-DP Barry Ackroyd, nominated for “The Hurt Locker”) avoids gloss and is packed with laughs—with multiple characters talking directly to the camera to explain what is going on, from “House of Cards”-style asides to long explanatory Brechtian footnotes such as Selena Gomez stacking chips in Vegas to define “synthetic CDOs,” Anthony Bourdain making fish chowder out of three-day-old fish, and Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble bath —this movie assumes we want to know what “really” happened to collapse the world economy.
“The Big Short” reflexively comments on its Hollywoodness to pull in the complicit viewer and make them trust what they are hearing, like “this really happened,” or “this was changed.” At one point Gosling’s barracuda investor Jared Vennett says, “I never said I was the hero of this story; I see you judging me.”
Finally “The Big Short” boasts enough gravitas to enter the awards fray, especially for adapted screenplay. Among the ensemble, Carell (who lost his Oscar bid for “Foxcatcher”) as Mark Baum, an anti-authoritarian “with a nose for bullshit,” and Oscar perennial Christian Bale (who won for “The Fighter”) as Asbergerish numbers savant Michael Burry, who made $4 billion for his Scion fund by actually reading all the sub-prime mortgages bundled into AAA-rated bonds and betting $1 billion on credit default swaps, will compete for slots as Best Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively. According to Lewis at the AFI Fest premiere after party, both nailed their true-life counterparts to a T. One wanted his name on film, the other didn’t.