The Big Short hits a comic bull’s-eye

While the economic meltdown of 2008 was no laughing matter, the new comedy The Big Short chuckles at the impact of the event and the absurdity of its secrets. As if dissecting the layers of disease, the film dares to explore what can happen when greed overwhelms common sense. And because the movie never takes itself too seriously, while fully respecting the subject matter, it makes the realities of the situation all the more frightening.

The Big Short works as a comedy because of its integrity as a drama. The screenplay by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph — based on the book by Michael Lewis — contains enough factual information to fill an economics class. But, don’t worry, there’s no test during the final credits. While the movie offers a lot of lessons about how sub-prime mortgages killed the housing market and almost destroyed the economy, it never plays as a lecture.

Director McKay, who is best known for Anchorman and Talladega Nights, fills the film with so much entertaining energy that we don’t realize how much we learn. Yes, he covers all the basics of why meltdowns happen, and packages these details into short, creative segments featuring such guest stars as Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie. And, yes, he examines, in detail, what may have caused the meltdown, who was most harmed, how far its devastation would reach, and how some people made money by predicting the right things in the right places at the right times. But his movie makes us laugh because McKay never forgets we’re in a theater, not a classroom.

The Big Short’s ultimate secret may be how McKay and Randolph put character over content. Rather than try to tell the entire story of the meltdown, they focus on a how a few clever people predict and react. And, instead of starting with traditional explanations of the background, their story starts in the middle of a conversation between eccentric financial brains. Christian Bale fascinates as the eccentric genius  — blind in one eye and suffering from Asperger’s syndrome — who predicts how the housing bubble will burst after he digs through thousands of real estate transactions. Steve Carrell follows his Oscar-nominated work in Foxcatcher with a devastating take on a hedge fund manager who delights at demise while sporting bad hair. John Magaro and Finn Wittrock delight as eager young investors who see potential in the crisis and wait for guidance from mentor Brad Pitt. And Ryan Gosling engages as a greedy banker who provides the narrative continuity. While we get to know how these men think, the film doesn’t explore their personal lives. These smartest guys in the room actually work. And they emerge as symbols of a system so filled with greed that it can’t contain the reach of its ambition.

What makes The Big Short stand out in a year of impressive movies is how McKay and his cast respect the severity of the issues while making the most of how they can entertain. No degree in finance is required to find this film fascinating. The Big Short is, simply, a movie for people who love movies. And you’ll learn something, too.

The Big Short

  • Content: High. No matter how you remember the financial crisis of 2008 — or how you have tried to forget — the film offers an entertaining review of this chapter in history.

  • Entertainment: High. Thanks to a highly original screenplay, energetic direction and a strong cast (led by Christian Bale and Steve Carrell) the movie is so entertaining that you don’t realize how much you learn.

  • Message: High. While the film entertains, it has a lot to say about what may have created the financial meltdown. And there’s no test at the end.

  • Relevance: High. Any opportunity to examine a significant moment in history can prompt meaningful discussion between parents and older teenagers.

  • Opportunity for Dialogue: High. Even though the movie contains as much content as a course in school, its rich entertainment will give you and your older teenagers a lot to talk about.

(The Big Short is rated R for “pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity.” The film runs 130 minutes.)

5 Popcorn Buckets

How Movies Focus on Money

While The Big Short recreates the financial meltdown of 2008, other memorable films also portray moments when people value the dollar more than each other. Here are a few of the most memorable.

Wall Street. While the look of the film is, now, wonderfully out of date – with the exaggerated designs, clothes and hair of the 1980s (as well as oversized telephones) – the articulation of greed still works. Michael Douglas creates a classic portrayal (for which he won an Oscar) of a man so driven by success that he can’t care less about the people left in his wake. He also gets to deliver one of the great speeches in movie history as he lectures a hostile crowd of stockholders with the words, “greed is good.”

Margin Call. The meltdown of 2008 at the core of The Big Short comes to life in this detailed drama from writer/director J.C. Chandor. The film recreates a turbulent 36 hours when an investment bank – and its band of greedy leaders – realize that everything they have worked for may end because no one had the guts to say, “enough is enough”. Jeremy Irons walks away with the acting honors as a man with more capacity to pretend than commit to the truth. He makes the character work as a man as well as a symbol of an industry’s priorities.

The Wolf of Wall Street. While director Martin Scorcese fails to exercise much restraint as he tells the story of Jordan Bellfort, and Leonardo di Caprio delivers a predictable performance as a man driven by acquiring the finer things in life, the movies offers a fascinating glimpse into how some people choose to live. Even if it runs an hour too long. If only Scorcese had trimmed the running time, and focused his lens, the movie tells us a lot about the financial realities it explores and the people it traps.

Rollover. While few people went to see this 1981 feature starring Jane Fonda and Kris Kristoferson, it weaves an entertaining tale of the excessive lives that people experience in the financial world. Fonda is at her best as a woman who knows what she knows, fears what she has yet to learn and manipulates everyone in sight as she tries to figure out who murdered her husband. While Kristofferson was never much of a movie actor (and won a Razzie as Worst Actor) director Alan J. Pakula always knows how to tell a story.

Enron, the Smartest Guys in the Room. How a company in Texas lets its ambition reach beyond its natural boundaries creates an unforgettable look at what greed can do to people who should know better. Of course, what makes this story so unforgettable is that it actually happened. And Director Alex Gibney digs to the core of what made Enron leaders believe in their destiny in this well-crafted and frightening documentary. The power of the piece reinforces the notion that truth is stranger than fiction.

Glengarry Glen Ross. The pressures of selling real estate come close to burying even the most aggressive salesmen in this movie adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Jack Lemmon was robbed when he did not get an Oscar nod for his devastating portrayal of a man who once accomplished too much to now feel so much to fear in the expectations of today. While the movie offers few answers, Mamet’s questions of when business pushes personal integrity too far make the movie something to savor.

Movies about money can certainly entertain as well as teach some important lessons about what should matter as people choose their lives. And these films offer essential messages about life. And money.

See you at the movies.