Release Date: December 23rd, 2015 (US); January 22nd, 2016 (UK)
Genre: Biography; Drama
Starring: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
The Big Short recalls the audacious actions of “a few outsiders and weirdos”, a group of like-minded money men who managed to accurately predict the 2008 global financial crash years in advance. Sure, it may not sound like the most enthralling venture, but it is. Adam McKay’s outing finds its footing somewhere between the maniacal antics of The Wolf of Wall Street and J.C. Chandor’s sobering Margin Call, lined with humour and born out of blood-boiling truth. Warning: it is a piece wholeheartedly set in its ways — if you are on the side of the bankers, this ain’t for you (nor, frankly, is decency).
Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, real life hedge fund supremo and heavy metal lover. Eccentric, his brain scorched by numbers and spreadsheets (the film is based on a book by Moneyball author Michael Lewis and it shows), Burry spots a flaw in the structure of the American housing market and, since nobody will take his findings seriously, he opts to invest in said market’s eventual collapse. “This is Wall Street Dr. Burry. If you offer us free money, we’re going to take it,” says one Goldman Sachs representative with glee in her heart and cash in her eyes.
Following an industry-driven family tragedy, Mark Baum has more emotional investment that anyone in Burry’s prediction. Coaxed on by a prowling vendetta against the world, Steve Carell is terrific in the role (there’s not a bum note generally, but Carell is the stand out). You really get the sense this is a guy who wholly detests the fraudulent system, and you feel a shared sense of injustice. However, Baum’s attempt to profit from the system’s downfall — and by proxy the plight of millions of innocent livelihoods — eats away at him, this internal struggle projected with weariness by Carell’s bruised eyes.
Ryan Gosling offers his two (million) cents as the sort of guy who practices catchy lines under his breath in preparation for important meetings — this sets up a hilarious money smelling quip. Gosling is financial trader Jared Vennett, a dick, but a dick with a point. Another Burry believer, he often breaks the fourth wall to explain what’s going on, funding his smarmy exterior in the process. The straight-to-camera dialogue works because the film is relentlessly preaching to us anyway. He and Baum work together but are opposing forces in personality terms: Baum amusingly no-sells Vennett’s macho demeanour while Vennett takes no notice, only interested in his rising bank balance.
Of the four headline names, Brad Pitt has the quietest role: Ben Rickert, having been chewed up and spat out by the banking industry, now abides by a pseudo-apocalyptic philosophy (“Seeds are gonna be the new currency”). Rickert is cajoled by understudies Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Whittrock) and subsequently returns to the field as their unshowy mentor, won over by Burry’s cataclysmic pattern. The presence of Pitt affords some weight to an arc that might have otherwise felt inconsequential given its unoriginal through line — it gets caught in the shadow of the other two, more prominent narrative strands.
McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s screenplay admirably juggles all of these hefty personalities, men collectively singing from the same ledger, without homogenising them. Nor does the script hold its protagonists to some sort of impenetrable moral standard — after all, irrespective of their true target, these guys are actively seeking to profit from the misfortune of both rich bankers and struggling Americans. McKay and Randolph frequently add layers to the plot, though when the film threatens to go beyond our intellectual comprehension it is saved by offbeat explanatory segments (chartered by the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez playing themselves).
It is abundantly clear who the villains are and the film knows that. But The Big Short also recognised the need to remind us of the primary culprits and does so by throwing around masses of Wall Street jargon, creating a divide between the folk who speak said language on a daily basis and everybody else. These are people who deviously undercut their customers and then guffaw about doing so in the safety of luxury afterwards — Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen play the worst on-screen offenders, two mortgage brokers painted with broad strokes by necessity. They believe the joke is on everyone else when it’s obviously on them.
There are plenty of other jokes too, gags inspired by wit and executed with piercing zest (McKay and Randolph even manage to take a jab at artistic licence by openly owning up to small bouts of fabrication). This overarching smartness does alienate one small story section, namely the jarring appearance of a soon-to-be ailing homeowner. The film is too clever for something so blunt, especially given its tendency to avoid emotional manipulation elsewhere. You might argue the scene puts a face on the economic turmoil, but having lived through the crisis the audience will already be thoroughly aware of the consequences. It does at least serve up an eerie visual of a housing wasteland that evokes Chernobyl connotations.
Hank Corwin’s editing encourages a rampant effervescence that is more or less employed throughout; from an opening montage that outlines the inception of the disaster, to various images of music videos, celebrities, models, and cash spliced together — all symbols of corporate America, of the new American Dream sold by capitalism, a false dream. The choppiness can be a bit disorienting but it does induce urgency and even a degree of mess, fitting since it reflects the impending financial calamity.
As characters debate the legitimacy of Burry’s predictions the camera wanders freely between their faces, upholding both the kinetic energy of the fast-moving industry and said industry’s unpredictable nature. When all the desks have been cleared and all the cheques resentfully written, The Big Short unveils its prognosis: that those involved, the guilty bankers eventually given legal clearance, were either blindly stupid or corrupted by immorality. It is a sombre conclusion but one we always knew was coming. Having laughed a lot, you’ll leave angry — and you’re supposed to.
Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures