Big Short (2015): Adam McKay’s Satire of Economic Crisis

Writer and director Adam McKay is best known as the comedy mastermind behind Will Ferrell’s blockbusters, including Step Brothers and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, as well as the Broadway Show You’re Welcome America.

Five years ago when he read “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” he became fascinated with a farce of a different kind.  Intrigued by the mixture of comedy, drama, and outright tragedy in Michael Lewis’ brilliant behind-the-scenes look at the lead-up to the global economic meltdown, McKay yearned to take a break from absurdist comedies and bring The Big Short to the big screen.

The tale begins in 2005, when Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the eccentric San Jose-based money manager and heavy-metal music enthusiast, studies thousands of individual loans bundled into highly rated mortgage bonds.   In the methodical process, he makes a startling discovery: the financial products are loaded with delinquent home loans, which are certain to default over the next few years.

While Wall Street bankers and government regulatory agencies ignore this time bomb, Burry invents a financial instrument, the credit default swap, in order to “short” the booming housing market — much to the dismay of his hedge fund’s owners and investors.

When Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), the slick young Wall Street banker, learns of Burry’s strategy, he uses a tower of tumbling Jenga blocks to persuade hot-tempered hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) that he too should invest millions in credit default swaps.

Initially skeptical, Baum and his contentious team of wise-cracking young analysts (Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater and Rafe Spall) undertake their own investigation. Researching the housing market in Florida, they interview glib mortgage brokers who routinely obtain loans for grossly under-qualified home buyers and a strip-club dancer who’s made zero-down-payment purchases of multiple properties.

Meanwhile, two young managers, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) also stumble upon the housing-market bubble.  Hoping to break into the financial big leagues, they’re distressed to find their $30 million fund falls almost $1.5 billion short of the requirements needed for a seat at the grownups’ table.  They enlist banker-turned-environmental-doomsayer Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who uses his connections to help them make their own bet against Wall Street.

By the time the market finally crashes in 2008, these investors will make billions yet will be forever changed by their experience. But while the financial institutions whose reckless behavior caused the problem are bailed out by U.S. taxpayers, millions of Americans lose their homes, their jobs and their retirement savings in an economic catastrophe whose effects are still being felt today.

McKay recalls. “I started reading the book at around 10:30 at night and thought, ‘I’ll just read 40 pages,’ I couldn’t put it down. I ended up reading the whole thing that night and finished at six in the morning. The next day I told my wife about the characters and how the book weaves together all these different story lines and how it’s like a ‘get rich’ story that’s ultimately about the fall of the banking system, corruption and complacency, and how it’s funny and it’s heartbreaking at the same time. And she’s like, ‘You should do it.’ And I said, ‘I’m the guy who did Step Brothers.’ I didn’t even look into it, because I just assumed a Scott Rudin or a Plan B had already bought the rights to this book.”

Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, had partnered with Paramount to develop The Big Picture as a picture. Producer Jeremy Kleiner and director McKay found striking similarities between the author’s approach to baseball and Wall Street within author Michael Lewis’ book Money Ball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, in which Pitt gave a strong performance.

Money Ball and The Big Short both look at familiar subjects that people think they understand and ask big questions. The Big Short is also distinguished by having protagonists who are not “do-gooders,” and yet are grounded and likeable.

Plan B sent McKay an early version of a screenplay written by Charles Randolph. “I saw some good stuff in the script and I also knew exactly how to make it better,” McKay says. “I met with Jeremy and Plan B president Dede Gardner and gave them my pitch.”

The movie allowed McKay to stretch: “People know me from movies like Talladega Nights and Anchorman or the Funny or Die videos, but I’ve always been involved in different causes,” says McKay.  In fact, he mastered political satire as head writer for “Saturday Night Live” before launching his movie career.

McKay related to the material as both director and responsible US citizen: “I feel like it’s your job as a citizen to pay attention to what’s going on in politics and society. You can be a clown and get sprayed with seltzer bottles, but you’ve also got to vote and know what you’re talking about.”

The resulting screenplay and movie incorporated McKay’s signature wit into the tale of a crucial, unprecedented era-defining moment in U.S. economic and political history–Barrack Obama was elected as the first African-American President in November of 2008.