The 400-Word-Review: The Big Short

By Sean Collier

December 21, 2015

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The Big Short, Adam McKay’s daring adaptation of a nonfiction take on the American housing bubble, has two giant obstacles in its path.

First: It’s nearly impossible to understand the intricacies of what’s happening. For McKay — who directed the film and co-wrote the adaptation, with Charles Randolph — to get the audience on board with his sweeping story of financial mischief and Main Street consequence, he not only has to explain remarkably intricate financial concepts to laymen, he has to explain the more-basic-yet-still-tricky concepts, too. His source material, author Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, was written for wide audiences, so some of the legwork is done — but conveying those ideas over popcorn is still a tough task.

Second: The protagonists aren’t trying to prevent financial disaster, defend the interests of the common American or save the world. They’re trying to make money. Some have their hearts in the right place, but this isn’t a story about the guys that tried to prevent Wall Street from making a catastrophically bad bet on the nation’s bankroll. This is a story about the tiny number of guys who figured out the tide was turning and tried to cash in.

Unlikely heroes, to say the least.


The great achievement of The Big Short, then, is that it’s quite good in spite of those hurdles. The former problem is overcome with humor. When the script starts dealing with the failings of mortgage backed securities, investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) turns to the camera. “Pretty confusing, right?” he asks. “So here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain.” And Robbie appears in a gilded bathtub, champagne in hand, to break things down.

The second problem is tougher. Not only are these guys far from heroes, several of them are all-around unpleasant. But McKay and Randolph’s deft script does not cast them as paragons of virtue, or paragons of anything in particular; they are merely trying to game an unfair system. And that’s a story that usually works — largely with excellent performances by the likes of Gosling, Christian Bale and, most notably, Steve Carell.

Make no mistake, however; while the players may not indict the systems that turned scores of Americans out of their homes, The Big Short certainly does, with humor and care. There may be no more entertaining way to discover just how we all got screwed.

My Rating: 8/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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