by Will Ross
McKay is an odd choice for a comedy drama prestige film. In spite of ample experience in the “comedy” realm, his work has all had a ramshackle absurdity that ensures they cannot be taken seriously, and frequently turns that to his advantage. The Big Short, despite its frequent quips and asides, absolutely must be taken seriously in order to work on any level at all, and McKay doesn’t seem to have the directorial toolkit to make that happen.
This is not to decry McKay as incapable of relevance. I’ll be damned if I can think of another director who could have made Anchorman, and whatever you think of that film, it had a powerful influence on the decade of comedy that followed. He has a deft sense of comic rhythm where it counts. But he’s also never produced a film that formed an irreducible whole; his spotty music choices, indulgent stylistic tangents, sloppy pacing, and near-incompetence as a camera director make sure of that.
McKay doesn’t overcome any of those weaknesses in The Big Short, not by a long shot. But his strengths do keep the script’s quips from thudding too mechanically. And, to its credit, the screenplay rattles off its breezy dialogue very nicely, for the most part. In any case, it’s clear that Charles Randolph has a fine utility with words, if not entirely with structure. The Big Short flirts with a hyperlink influence, but the disparate paths of its characters never cross, probably because in real life they never did cross in reality, and as the film is fond of repeating via voiceover, This Stuff Really Happened. But the separate stories never cross in a meaningful thematic way, either. They just trundle along their parallel story threads, going through the same events with the same emotional tenor and the same overarching observations and the same results, and the only thing that keeps them feeling any different is the contrasted personalities involved, which are thinly sketched at the start and then hardly filled in at all, in spite of being capably embodied by the film’s all-star cast.
But the script’s greatest sin is its celebrity cameo-lectures, which are disastrously disruptive to the film and condescending to the audience. An especially frustrating instance comes just after the film hits one of its emotional peaks, as a character realizes the full scope of the coming blow to the global economy. Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O' Mine” plays over the soundtrack as voiceover gives way to a flurry of impressionistic cuts between cooking, casino bets, and then the whole thing stops dead so that Selena Gomez can spend two minutes explaining what a synthetic CDO is, even though the scene that just happened did a perfectly fine job of that. There are three or four of these interruptions, and, unsurprisingly, Randolph has stated that they were McKay’s idea.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the counterintuitive but excellent choice of “Sweet Child O' Mine” was also McKay’s, but the editing that accompanies it is very obviously the work of one of his two major new collaborators on the film, Hank Corwin. Corwin gives The Big Short a lot of its best moments, bringing his editing bona fides from Terrence Malick’s The New World and The Tree of Life to bear with some ingenious flashes of discontinuity or subjective flashbacks, while also being obviously beholden to the arhythmic onus of his material. A film with heavy coverage, length, and a multi-threaded structure is a prime candidate for a rewrite in the editing stage, and doubtless Corwin could have done it, but that would have required more rearrangement than was possible in a 2015 release window.
If there’s one person who benefits from Corwin’s work more than McKay, it’s his second major new crew member, Barry Ackroyd. The English director of photography is a near-ideal choice for the project; he excels at bringing the best out of directors with little confidence with the cameras (Ralph Fiennes had him take charge for the entire visual design of 2011's Coriolanus), and might be the best docudrama cinematographer working today (and any docudrama DoP needs a damn fine editor backing him or her up). And yes, the best visuals feature dynamic, reactive handheld movements and reframing, and they’re entirely typical of Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography. The worst are arbitrary, uninspired coverage choices and awkward, locked-off compositions and dollies. Those are entirely typical of — you probably see this one coming — Adam McKay. Which points to one of two things: either Ackroyd isn’t at home with still frames and compositions, or Adam McKay is a lackluster director of visuals who scuttled The Big Short’s chances at aesthetic cohesion. (A reminder: Ackroyd shot the magnificent, classical, locked-off compositions of Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley.)
This illness at ease pervades almost every aspect of The Big Short, and it compromises the film’s message delivery. An early voiceover insists that the machinations of all these deals and financial terms are not beyond our understanding. If it trusted its dramatic pull and had the assured procedural storytelling, it would be able to prove this, instead of throwing asinine Bill Nye the Science Guy-style educational vignettes into the middle of its plot mechanics. Instead, it is a deeply patronizing experience, and it’s hard to give it points for necessity given the existence of Margin Call, which is at once every bit as comprehensible as The Big Short, and a smarter, more focused, and more complex film in every way that matters.
McKay is a little more at home when he steps into the dramatic territory of another recent film about excessive, criminal greed in this neighbourhood, The Wolf of Wall Street, and yet any comparison shows Scorsese’s 2013 opus as the riskier film that plays its tonal shifts and “can’t-believe-it’s-a-true-story” spectacle with unstoppable forward momentum. That movie about a banker convicted in the early 2000s did much more to convincingly inspire anger against the (still unconvicted) white collar criminals who engineered the recession in '08 than this film that deals directly with the latter subject. The Big Short is allowed to succeed on its own terms, of course, but I’m not sure that the people who made it were ever sure what those terms ought to be. I don’t dislike Adam McKay — I could never dislike anyone who could conjure the good-natured anarchy of a film like Anchorman, short of Nazi apologism or something — but I can’t think of a clearer recent example of a director dragging down his material and his collaborators.