Compiling the build-up and fallout of the seismic actions and reactions to the financial crisis of 2007-08 is not a particularly promising project for Adam McKay. His works before The Big Short had been withering comedies like The Other Guys and Step Brothers. All directors must make their leap from comedy to drama at some stage. Jay Roach tripped through Austin Powers: Goldmember and made it through, unscathed, to Trumbo. But for McKay, the desire to adapt modern history was overbearing. His need and lust to shed a spotlight on the political machine and the problems of it was too much to resist, not just for the director and his cast but audiences who fell at the shocking revelations that McKay made.
Despite that, what does McKay reveal? While The Big Short opens with a quote from Mark Twain so indecipherable within the context of bankers and greed that it loses its meaning, and so too does this feature. Trying to dive into the heart of stockbrokers and bank assessments is impossible. The jargon is complex, the stereotypes have yet to be rattled from the Wall Street days of Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas. Countering this, McKay believes fourth wall breaks and celebrity cameos will fix it. Anthony Bourdain explains collateral debt obligation, Margot Robbie talks of subprime mortgage bonds while swirling a flute of champagne. It is a welcome break from the stuffy faces and ideation presented by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell.
As talented as that aforementioned trio are, they are under the scope of McKay. A blinded and narrowed vision of how this modern financial crisis should be depicted is offered, and with dithering prose underlining it. Bale and Carrel have no difficulties in adapting to this jargon-fuelled feature, but as aspiring and persistent they may be in their roles they fail to consider the lack of depth to their words and their performances. McKay is at fault here for offering strong actors out as replicants of devices or discussion, rather than as human beings. Even if they were flawed miscreants like Bale tries to play, it would have been far more interesting than the unreliable narrator, talking down the lens of the camera with little to say and less time to explain it all.
The Big Short is by no means a bad film, it just feels sadly indifferent and defeated by the events of the past. McKay offers little inspiration for reclamation of the future and does not offer the defeatist perspective either. He straddles an awkward and janky middle ground that never gets him very far. Characters are believed to be expressions and emotions of the time rather than actual people. They may be based on the truth, but they don’t come close to recognising their response, they are instead a catalyst for the controlled and strained view of something much wider. Spiralling around issues beyond the audience’s control, McKay must show the horrors The Big Short keeps teasing with. He does so, but shyly and ineffectively, as the performances nosedive and the stuffy iconography of Wall Street takes hold, it is hard to shake it off and focus on the core themes when breaks are made to explain things away with celebrity guests.