[This review is made possible by the Looking Closer Specialists who support this blog. I’m grateful for you, Specs.]

Adam McKay, director of Anchorman and Step Brothers, has his first Best-Picture-nominated film at the 2016 Oscars.  

If you haven’t yet seen it or read about it, that may be because the subject matter doesn’t appeal to you. It’s a high-spirited, humorous investigation of a horrible chapter in American history: the chapter in which our democracy was pretty much overthrown by liars and cheaters who robbed us of 99% of America’s wealth.

Based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same title — a detailed autopsy of the American economy, devoid of the movie’s satirical flourishes — the film traces the recent financial crisis that resulted when the markets collapsed due to rampant greed and an epidemic of ignorance. It stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and about a dozen other bromancing cool kids.

And yet, while it’s nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Bale, and Best Adapted Screenplay, I found it as to be as frustrating as it is engaging. That’s not because it does anything badly — the editing is fast and clever, the script expertly weaves a tapestry of plot lines, and the actors invest in their characters to strike a wide range of notes from whistle-blowing sincerity a la Michael Mann’s The Insider to the absurdist comedy of Anchorman. It’s just that it does too many things well that feel conflicting and incongruous. For every scene well-written and well-acted (and there are many), there are interruptions, segues, and flourishes that feel showy, snarky, and smug.

And ultimately, the story that it tells does not go far enough.


Here’s what I hear this movie saying about itself:

“Americans need to understand these things: That their government is not running the show. That the people have been, are being, and will continue to be exploited — robbed of the money, the homes, the comforts, the security, and their children’s futures — all that they’ve earned through honest hard work. That the thieves are above the law, untouchable, throwing wild parties with their money, and devising ways to take more besides from them and their children. That the middle class is tricked into thinking that this is all somehow the fault of immigrants and the poor.

“But these things are Complicated. And middle-class Americans don’t like Complicated. They’d rather be slaves than have to do the work of thinking things through. They’d rather be exploited, mocked, and ruined than have to pay attention, learn a new language, and do what’s necessary to redeem the system from within and hold criminals responsible. It’s easier to suffer and complain and channel the energy of hurt into supporting some promise-making politician than it is to learn how we let this mess develop in the first place, and then get busy striving for change.

“So let’s make a movie that gets people’s attention, wakes them up, and teaches them what they need to know!

“But how?

“Well, what wakes up middle-class Americans and gets their attention?


“And not just any celebrities — the cool kids. Gosling. Bale. Pitt. A lineup of theWorld’s Sexiest Man — actors who will attract female viewers who want them and male viewers who want to be them — and let’s have them explain the tough stuff. We’ll give it all the slickness of a great heist movie. We’ll make it play like Ocean’s 14. (Can we get Brad Pitt to eat and drink a lot onscreen? That’ll work as a subliminal link to the whole Ocean’s series.)

“And then when things get really complicated, we’ll bring in Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to break the fourth wall and explain things, because everybody will pay attention to them. This will be an obvious joke, and they’ll laugh, sensing the satire in it.

“But that’s ironic, right? Because the fact is that most moviegoers have shown up precisely because we’ve loaded this things with actors they already like. They’re not here because they want to learn about sub-prime mortgage loans. They could have read books about that, read articles about that, or learned about that any number of ways. They’re here for the famous people.

“So that’s how we’ll trick them into actually learning something.”


That’s what I heard the movie saying. That was its attitude.

And here’s what I heard myself saying as I drove home from the movie:

I understand the good intentions of this movie. I can even admire a few of the performances.

And I appreciate a good satire. I count Dr. Strangelove, Waiting for Guffman, The Player, and many others among my favorites.

But this one feels condescending, uneven, un-cinematic, and cynical.

Condescending: Even though I agree with the movie’s presumption that the majority of Americans really would rather read about celebrity gossip than learn how they are being exploited, I don’t think that insulting the audience is the proper mode for challenging them. “Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain this to you. LOL.”

Uneven: If this had gone hard into satire, instead of shifting into that mode whenever things get “complicated,” it could have been a real circus. But even though I laughed at some of the film’s satirical flourishes, I found that the film’s more sincere stretches — particularly the stories of Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) —  feel like they’re from a different film, a drama that might have been more substantial. So, while Carrell invests heavily in a drama of conscience, it’s not what it could have been if the rest of the movie had lived in that world and not played to those with fleeting attention spans.

Further complicating matters is the smugness that radiates from this movie’s star-system cast: I’m not blaming the actors individually, but I think that the all-star lineup does more to push this film into the realm of fantasy — like the Ocean’s films — than it does to persuade us of the urgent reality that Americans do, yes, need to understand. Only occasionally did I feel myself drawn into these characters’ dramas; most of the time, I was thinking about the actors and their performances which is, right there, a sign that something isn’t working (at least for me).

Un-cinematic: Sure, it’s slick, flashy, and entertaining in its rhythms. It’s a blast to watch our favorite Hollywood kings play weird and wacky characters.

But I don’t come away with a single memorable image, or one that is more than the sum of its parts. This is a movie in which cameras point and shoot people as they talk. No interpretation or participation necessary.

Cynical: Yes, I get that Margot Robbie was in The Wolf of Wall Street. But The Wolf of Wall Street was a film so fueled with anger that its satire was consistently ferocious: a funhouse mirror that punished its subjects by revealing their black hearts, and that honored as noble those who labor (however wearily) to resist. It was a jealousy-killing film: Who would want to be the “successful” men of that movie? The luxuries, glamour, and trophies were shown to be inseparable from the evils that made men pursue and possess them. It went to extremes to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Entertainment was not its main mode. So, sure, I appreciate The Big Short‘s nod in Scorsese’s direction. But it’s not on the same level of artistry. I’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street, and Big Short… you are no Wolf of Wall Street.

Did I learn some details about the housing market’s collapse? Yes.

But you know what else I learned? That there’s nothing we can do. Nothing. Selfish bankers collapsed the world economy; the self-interest of those who might have prevented the collapse blinded them to the pending disaster; and the government effectively pardoned the whole crooked conspiracy because, well… that’s who owns them.


So while I came away with a very familiar sense of disgust for the wealthy criminals who run America in the name of Sacred Capitalism — and that’s a fine thing for a work of art to inspire: a contempt for evil — I also came away with a sense of apathy and despair about a system that’s so rigged every effort to break free only benefits the Enemy more. Satire is not duty-bound to present a solution, but its very truth-telling should feel like something of a victory in itself — that giddy buzz of have set truth off the leash to do its work in the world. Perhaps you get that sense from this, but at first viewing I do not. I feel only bitter resignation.

And yet, here’s the thing: I don’t really believe that there’s nothing we can do. Despair and cynicism will keep me from striving to effect change, and so this movie may actually compound the problem by sending us away not much more than entertained. I want the film that makes me feel driven to do something, even if that just means I should seek meaning in more than money, and learn from the way history is already damning heartless hedonists.

When it’s over, the slick style, the parade of coolness, and the smug cleverness all give me a sneaking suspicion that somehow this movie will end up putting more money in corporate pockets while the audience goes home feeling good about having seen a Serious Film About Something Important, and then makes plans to go see either Spotlight or Star Wars the next day.

But… having said all of that… I remind you that these are first impressions. I feel it’s only fair to give some space for contrary opinions on this one, as a good number of critics and moviegoers I respect came away convinced they’d seen a great satire.

Listen to the great Filmspotting debate between Josh Larsen (whose experience was similar to mine) and Adam Kempanaar (who thought this the best movie of the year).

Listen to Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com who writes:

I started off feeling skeptical about this movie: the hairstyles and clothes of the main characters were more ‘90s music-video than early 2000s, and the sometimes-color-desaturated flashbacks to some characters’ back stories were a little on the drearily commonplace side. But the narrative momentum, combined with the profane wit of much of the dialogue, and the committed acting going on beneath the hairpieces, all did their job. … You are free to disagree. But this is a movie that uses both cinema art and irrefutable facts to make its case. It’s strong stuff.

And my good friend John Barber, one of the Looking Closer Specialists, gives us a great example of how art strikes us differently because of who we are, the roads we’ve walked, the burdens and joys we’ve known. He writes this…



First, I loved it a whole lot.

Second, I completely understand why some people didn’t (take a listen to the episode of Filmspotting in which Adam and Josh almost come to blows over this movie for more evidence).

I read Jeffrey’s review and totally get it. I just don’t agree. Rather than being condescending, I found it exhilarating. There was a joyousness in the storytelling that I found lacking in the obvious parallel film of the year, Spotlight (a movie that I liked and appreciated, but never really captured me). I adored the Robbie, Bourdain, Gomez, etc. interstitials. Maybe I need to be condescended to, but I thought they were the perfect outworking of the film’s brashness

I really didn’t want to see The Big Short. It’s just that I decided that I wanted to see all of the Best Picture noms, so I made time for it. I had no interest in this one, and it’s possible that my affection for it possibly stems from having low expectations.

My favorite line in the whole film comes from Brad Pitt’s character, near the end, when his young friends asked him why he helped them and he says (this is from memory, so forgive me if it’s off), “You wanted to be rich. Now you’re rich.” The struggle that some of the main characters go through (Bale’s character is an exception, which I’ll get to in a moment) when they realize that as they expose the corruption of the system, they still stand to profit immensely, is fascinating to me. And Pitt’s line came back to me at the end as a sort of restating of Mark 8:36, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” As Carell’s character sits on his patio and realizes that his moral high ground is gone, and he has no choice but to sell, I saw a man crumble under his own false sense of morality.

Now, Bale. This one is personal for me, so I understand if this is way off base. But the fact is that his character reminded me so much of my oldest son that it was a bit scary. My son, Sam has Asperger’s Syndrome. I have no idea if Dr. Michael Burry has the same thing, but I felt the echoes if it all over him. The intellectual disconnect between Burry and his partner is one that I experience daily. Burry’s incredulity at the idea that no one would support him was so spot on that I can’t hardly describe it. I can see why many might think Bale’s performance was over the top, but I found it spectacular.

Bottom line: The Big Short was, for me, that anomalous film that takes a situation that could have been so incredibly monotonous and it makes something joyful out of it. Whether I actually understand the financial crisis or I just think I do, the effect is the same. I came home wanting to tell everyone around me about this movie — AND IT’S A MOVIE ABOUT DEFAULT CREDIT SWAPS.

I only have eyes for Mad Max: Fury Road and George Miller this award season, but if this one pulled it out, I’d be happy. And as Adam Kempanaar said on Filmspotting, “All Hail Adam McKay!”