When Black Comedy Attacks

In 1964, at the height of the cold war, Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  The black comedy portrayed those who had control of the nuclear arsenal as delusional, insane, myopic, and/or ineffectual. Now in 2015 comes The Big Short which is one of the brightest and most energetic examples of black comedy. In this case it portrays most of the people in charge of the financial markets as delusional, insane, myopic, and/or ineffectual, though it also adds criminal frauds to the mix. There’s one big difference though between the two films: The Big Short is based on actual events.

The movie is based on the book by Michael Lewis, who also wrote “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side,” and details how a couple of fund managers figured out that the housing market was a huge bubble that was about to pop. The book was adapted by Charles Randolph, who took a deservedly jaundiced look at Big Pharma with Love and Other Drugs, and Adam McKay, who also directed. McKay seems on the surface to be an unusual choice for this project, since he’d made his name co-writing and directing Will Ferrell’s best movies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys). Last year he did Ant-Man, which managed to blend both comedy and action/adventure in a balanced way – not an easy accomplishment. With The Big Short he’s made a quantum leap into an area usually occupied by Aaron Sorkin and Edward Zwick.

He’s aided by a sterling cast. You have the first person to discover the bubble, Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale. Burry is a one-eyed doctor who changed careers to become a fund manager. He’s painfully awkward interacting with people, but he’s completely comfortable with numbers and analysis. The next person to catch wind of it and recognize the implications is Jared Vennett, who’s played by Ryan Gosling with swarthy makeup and dyed hair. Gosling also provides narration for the story. Later, two Young Turk investors from Colorado discover the bubble. Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) decide to go all in, betting against the housing market, but they don’t have the capital to get a place at the big boy table. However, they have an ace in the hole: Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former investment banker who turned his back on that world out of disgust.

However, the person through whom the audience comes to truly understand the crisis is Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum has a large reservoir of righteous indignation for companies that screw over their customers, and expects the worse in banks. But even he has trouble believing the scope of what has happened and the cupidity of the banks and the bond traders.

If you think that a movie about banks and the financial crisis would be about as enjoyable as a root canal done without anesthesia, you would be completely wrong. McKay uses three cameo appearances to explain the workings of the bond market. They feature Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, Anthony Bourdain cooking in a kitchen, and Selena Gomez at a blackjack table. When Vennett makes his initial presentation to Baum about the coming crisis, he illustrates his points with a Jenga game.

McKay also breaks the fourth wall multiple times in the course of the movie and has the actors address the audience directly. It happens most with Gosling, since he is also narrating the story, but others do it as well. Sometimes it’s to explain that what’s shown on the screen isn’t what actually happened, but even more often it’s to say that some plot points that seem completely unrealistic are in fact exactly what took place. The device is as old as Greek theater, and recently it’s been used in both the English and American version of “House of Cards.” There’s a danger that it can be self-indulgent, but here it works beautifully to illuminate and expand the story.

McKay gets powerful performances from his cast, in particular Carell. Several excellent actors fill roles that have only one or two scenes, including Marisa Tomei, Karen Gillian, and Melissa Leo. The film has received 5 Oscar nods – a well-deserved nomination for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Bale, Best Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay (so McKay is up for two), and finally Best Film Editing.

With black comedy, horrible things can sneak up on you while you’re laughing and deliver a sucker punch to your solar plexis. Think of the end of Dr. Strangelove where the world blows up to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again Some Sunny Day.” There’s a similar explosiveness to the end of The Big Short, but this is a true story. Everyone should watch this movie, if for no other reason than to prevent the country being manipulated again by the delusional, insane, myopic, ineffectual people who are also criminal frauds. Remember, fool us twice – shame on us.

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