Every year there's one late-surging Oscar contender, from Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" to Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" and last year's "American Sniper," which plowed into the Oscar race to the gratitude of the Academy, anxious about pulling viewers to the Oscar show.
Now we have Adam McKay's unexpectedly strong awards contender "The Big Short," which nabbed four Golden Globe Comedy nominations and nods from SAG (ensemble and Christian Bale supporting), editing, writing and producers guilds. Friday morning, it landed five more big nominations, this time for the BAFTA Awards: Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Bale), and Editing. (Watch a featurette on how the production team created the film's distinctive look and feel below.)
The industry took notice when Paramount Pictures pushed up "Anchorman" writer-director Adam McKay's movie "The Big Short" to December 11. The star-studded Wall Street expose was developed by Brad Pitt's Plan B (he plays a juicy supporting role as a lapsed Wall Street trader who gets pulled back in) and backed 50/50 by Paramount and risk-taker New Regency, which backed the last two Best Picture winners, "12 Years a Slave" and "Birdman." Paramount chairman Brad Grey's long-term investment in Plan B is paying off, because yet again this powerhouse led by producers Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner has backed an unlikely Oscar contender. Plan B was behind Best Picture Oscar-winner "12 Years a Slave" and Best Picture nominee "Selma."
And this time McKay—who is known for robustly commercial fare starring his Gary Sanchez Productions partner Will Ferrell (the "Anchorman" series) as well as writing Marvel's "Ant-Man" and running online video site Funny or Die—delivered such a smart and unlikely take on the financial meltdown that "The Big Short"'s late momentum might be powerful enough to overtake early frontrunner "Spotlight."
Globe nominees Steve Carell and Christian Bale are standouts among a superb cast. McKay worked with Charles Randolph ("Love & Other Drugs," "The Interpreter") on adapting non-fiction writer Michael Lewis' investigation of Wall Street malpractice, “The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine." Lewis has an amazing track record for bestsellers turned into commercial Oscar contenders, from "The Blind Side" to "Moneyball." Because he finds vivid characters to lead us through complex stories that reveal how our (corrupt) world functions, Lewis's books work on film.
McKay pitched himself to direct the project, and turns out to be a good match for what might seem impenetrable material about how increasingly complex mortgage derivatives led to the 2008 global economic crisis. Plan B kept the budget low ($28 million)— the cast did not get their usual rates—in order to get away with the risk of a brainy movie that plays to the educated side of the moviegoing public.
While this shaggily framed comedy (shot by verite-DP Barry Ackroyd, nominated for "The Hurt Locker") avoids gloss and is packed with laughs—with multiple characters talking directly to the camera to explain what is going on, from "House of Cards"-style asides to long explanatory Brechtian footnotes such as Selena Gomez stacking chips in Vegas to define "synthetic CDOs," Anthony Bourdain making fish chowder out of three-day-old fish (McKay recalled his essay and shot him for the film), and Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble bath —this movie assumes we want to know what "really" happened to collapse the world economy.
"The Big Short" reflexively comments on its Hollywoodness to pull in the complicit viewer and make them trust what they are hearing, like "this really happened," or "this was changed." At one point Gosling's barracuda investor Jared Vennett says, "I never said I was the hero of this story; I see you judging me."
Finally "The Big Short" boasts enough gravitas to win some awards, especially for adapted screenplay. Among the ensemble, Carell (who lost his Oscar bid for "Foxcatcher") as Mark Baum, an anti-authoritarian "with a nose for bullshit," and Oscar perennial Christian Bale (who won for "The Fighter") as Asbergerish numbers savant Michael Burry, who made $4 billion for his Scion fund by actually reading all the sub-prime mortgages bundled into AAA-rated bonds and betting $1 billion on credit default swaps, will compete for slots as Best Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively. And McKay is heading for a director nomination, too.