Review: ‘Big Short’ makes a recession entertaining

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“The Big Short” is a hugely entertaining film on a deeply depressing subject, the economic collapse of 2008.

Wait! That sounds terribly boring. And it probably would have been in the hands of anyone other than director Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights”). McKay specializes in doing frenetic humor, and he brings that same energy to this story, which he and Charles Randolph adapted from the book by Michael Lewis.

As most realize, the economic bust was driven by banks heedlessly giving out home loans to people who were underqualified to pay those loans. “The Big Short” follows three groups of people who foresaw the crisis to come and bet huge amounts of money against the banks, thus somewhat guiltily making fortunes for themselves as much of America found itself broke and homeless.

The initial visionary was Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who is a real person (others are composites or have had name changes). Burry had given up medicine for investing, but he was hardly your standard business type — he had a glass eye, wore shorts and flip-flops to work, and loved heavy metal. But he was also ultra-sharp and was the first to notice things were heading the wrong way and bet against the banks.

An oily investment banker named Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s moves and convinces an investment group headed by Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to go the same way. Coincidentally, a couple of small-time traders (Finn Wittrock, John Magaro) working out of a garage in California hear about the trend, and with the guidance of a wily, retired, granola-munching ex financial wiz (Brad Pitt), they go all in.

Then it’s just a matter of waiting for the economy to collapse.

McKay livens things up with sudden fiscal explanations from unlikely sources — Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, Selena Gomez at a blackjack table — and trips to Las Vegas and Florida, where the housing market is so bad that an alligator is lounging in the pool of an abandoned home. He constantly cross edits from one group to another, keeping the pace madcap, even goofy.

And yet, as the film makes clear, there is nothing goofy about this. American taxpayers ended up bailing out these consciously corrupt banks, retirement plans were ravaged and virtually no one went to jail. Worst of all, the banks seem to be gearing up for another round.

“The Big Short” manages to be as enlightening as it is entertaining. But its ominous revelations linger long after it’s over.

‘The Big Short’


Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity

Running time: 130 minutes