'The Big Short': AFI Fest Review

A one-note comic drama about finance high and low.

Adam McKay's all-star comedy vehicle is about a bunch of Wall Street wiseguys who made a mint out of the financial crisis.

The world is divided between many fools and a few sharp crazies in The Big Short, a strenuously unfunny comic drama about a handful of foresightful, or maybe just lucky, Wall Street guys who made a mint by being right about the home loan mortgage crisis that led to the 2008 financial collapse.

While there is a certain undeniable fascination in watching the so-called experts go down while a few visionary mavericks escape on self-made lifeboats, you can never escape the thought that Paramount probably made this film only because of the success of The Wolf of Wall Street two years ago and then recall how much better made and more entertaining that was than what's onscreen here. A top cast and the prospect of indulging in some deep-dish schadenfreude will prove a commercial draw up to a point, but mainstream fans drawn by the big four cast toppers — Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt — might not be so amused.

Director and co-writer Adam McKay switches gears considerably from his Anchorman and Talladega Nights heyday with a film in which one hundred per cent of the dialog is about finance, of which 98.6 percent will go over the heads of the general public. This is as much as admitted by an amusing conceit in which none other than Wolf co-star Margot Robbie is brought in fairly early on to take a bubble bath and drink champagne while jocularly explaining about sub-prime mortgages and other issues of relevance; Selena Gomez picks up the baton for similar purposes later on. Not that this, or anything else, does much good to clarify the financial shenanigans and buyer blindness that went into the calamity that hit seven years ago.

Read more Brad Pitt Wants Justice for Victims of Financial Collapse: "It’s Disgusting. It Makes Me Angry"

Based on an esteemed book by Michael Lewis, the script by Charles Randolph and McKay focuses on the handful of men in the field — most of whom seem at least half-bonkers — who bet against the conventional wisdom by not accepting the shibboleth that just because something hasn't happened before means it's never going to happen.

In a world of almost constant weirdness, perhaps the weirdest sight of all is Scion Capital executive Michael Burry (Bale), he of one glass eye who demonstrates that one eye is better than two in spotting a calamity that awaits some distance down the road. How he holds down this job is less certain, however, since the man is so ungainly and antisocial that one might be forgiven for imagining him the village idiot. But he's quite sure he's called this one right.

Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is one of the rudest men alive, as he has an ill-advised habit of bursting into rooms, loudly imposing his opinions whether anyone's interested or not and generally behaving like a boor. Accused of being unhappy, he replies that, "I am happy when I'm unhappy."

Read more How Adam McKay Managed to Write and Wrangle Stars for 'The Big Short' (Q&A)

Ryan Gosling's Jared Vennett is arrogantly self-assured in a more conventional manner, while Brad Pitt's bookish Ben Rickert has already retired to Colorado when called upon to lend his expertise to the maverick view that nothing is too big to fail.

With the action mostly set in New York offices and conference rooms, McKay serves up one scene after another in which the conventional wisdom of executives at various top-name financial institutions — some still in business, others merged or gone — is challenged by the outliers, whose gloom-and-doom prognostications are dismissed for years as anything from simply cracked to market "buzz-kill" to downright heretical. On their own, individual scenes are effective enough in semi-farcically portraying the ignorance, avoidance and/or downright denial by the practitioners of bad loans. Together, however, they are wearying in their repetitive nature (the mavericks uniformly prevail over the know-it-all establishment) and depressing given the awareness of how it all turned out.

In a manner that splits the difference between the jokey and the objectively serious, McKay tries to explain what all the arcane financial terms mean and ultimately comes down very hard on the selfish and larcenous executives who refused to confront the consequences of their practices before it was too late. And well he might. But both the behavior of the characters and the viewer responses sought are so repetitive and unchanging that it all becomes wearisome well before the far overlong feature wraps up.

The cast is game, to be sure, with everyone seeming to take enthusiastic pleasure in disappearing into the roles of societal misfits of one kind or another.

Read more Ryan Gosling: 'The Big Short' Talks Finance Without Being "Very Preachy" 

Venue: AFI Film Festival (closing night)

Opens: December 11 (Paramount)

Production: Regency, Plan B

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock, Marissa Tomei, Tracy Letts, Byron Mann, Adepero Oduye, Karen Gillian, Max Greenfield, Billy Magnussen

Director: Adam McKay

Screenwriters: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay, based on the book by Michael Lewis

Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Arnon Milchan

Executive producers: Louise Rosner-Meyer, Kevin Messick

Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd

Production designer: Clayton Hartley

Costume designer: Susan Matheson

Editor: Hank Corwin

Music: Nicholas Britell

Casting: Francine Maisler

R rating, 130 minutes

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