Financial Crisis as Comedy

Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay directs an all-star cast in The Big Short, which explains the Great Recession of 2008

Director Adam McKay is best known as Will Ferrell’s partner on such hilariously sophomoric movies as The Other Guys, Step-Brothers, and, of course, Anchorman. Also the co-creator of the Funny or Die website, he is one of the least obvious filmmakers in Hollywood to be tasked with explaining the Great Recession of 2008. Understanding that economic calamity, however, which saw billions of dollars of wealth inexplicably lost, is a scenario where one needs to laugh to keep from crying, so perhaps a comedic approach is best.

On the evidence of The Big Short, McKay and his gonzo sensibility were just what the analyst ordered. The farcical comedy actually finds the humor as it follows a small group of truly eccentric finance guys who are betting that the glory days are coming to an abrupt and painful end, to the amusement or derision of everyone else in the financial sector. Along the way, The Big Short also manages to comically detail (at least partially) the arcane investment strategies and greed that produced the meltdown.

McKay is aided immensely by the offbeat casting of the film. This disparate group of oddballs includes Steve Carell as an abrasive fund manager, Christian Bale as an arrogant and successful investor savant, Ryan Gosling as a restless opportunist, and Brad Pitt as a recluse and former lion of Wall Street. With their abundant quirks and attitudes, none of these characters are likable people; you would run screaming if you encountered them at a party. But their deep knowledge, passionate commitment, and defiant self-confidence make them mesmerizing on the screen.

The screenplay, co-written by McKay, Charles Randolph, and the original author, Michael Lewis, elected to bring the audience in on the joke, as the characters routinely break the fourth wall to describe, or even contradict, moments of the story to the viewer. And obscure investment terms and instruments (which have evaded easy explanation in the years since the crisis) are spelled out in weirdly serious cameos by the likes of actress Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath, no less), chef Anthony Bourdain, and singer Selena Gomez.

Although much of the film is played for laughs, it’s clear that McKay and his cohorts have something more serious on their minds. The Big Short trenchantly closes with a set of text remarks that note the enormous amount of money lost in the downturn, the lack of any effective regulation put in place to prevent a recurrence, and the fact that only one minor player in the whole debacle ever went to prison. It’s remarkable that upon leaving the theater after a well-done two-hour comedy, my overwhelming emotional reaction was rage.