Directed by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
How do you look at the causes for the GFC (and the causal sub-prime mortgage scandal) without the audience wanting to eat a gun barrel just a couple of hours into your dry economic debate? For 99 Homes, it was to throw you straight into the aftermath and force you to empathise with those who have lost the very roof over their head. Loosely based on the 2010 best-seller by Michael Lewis, The Big Shorttakes a radically different approach by looking at the days and events leading up to the financial collapse, and making it as entertaining as possible. This is more than just a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. Rather this is a self-serve dessert bar and cocktails afterwards. However, in amongst all this glitz and glamour The Big Short never loses sight of the larger picture.
As trader Jarett Vennett (Ryan Gosling) states in the prelude to the film, “Banking used to be boring.” Unfortunately that sort of boring, solid dependability has faded over the last decades of the twentieth century going into the twenty first, and banking has become about maximum profitability. When a maverick hedge-fund manager, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), spots a discrepancy in the way mortgages are done, he starts to bet against the housing market. As numerous other financial denizens begin to investigate this situation, they uncover an industry that is greedily overextended and ripe for a disastrous collapse.
There’s something akin to watching a duck swim with this film. On the surface it is effortless, but look underneath and it is a mad scramble just to keep everything heading forward. Given the narcoleptic subject matter, McKay uses every trick in the book to engage the audience and maintain their attention. He constantly breaks the fourth wall, with a barrage of guests to explain key economic concepts in as entertaining a fashion as possible – be that Anthony Bourdain explaining how old offcuts can be used in fish stew (but he wouldn’t trust it) in a comparison to CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), or Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain… anyway… I got distracted. The point is, these dense and complex economic concepts are explained in a simple and highly entertaining fashion, a stylistic method borrowed from some of the more pithy and tongue in cheek documentarians. Combine that with the rather engrossing voice over from Ryan Gosling leading the audience through by providing background and context, and you have a film that is willing to act as the viewers guide, but never feels like it is insulting you for it.
These are far from the only techniques that McKay uses. Rapid editing, attention-seeking graphics, virtuoso performances, Metallica – it’s all thrown in the mix, to keep this film ticking along. The end result is busy, but feels energising rather than garish. Ultimately the heart of The Big Short is the disaster that the banking system created for itself and the knock-on effects such a collapse had on everyone’s lives. It is also a cautionary tale, one that we obviously haven’t learned from, as with the absence of harsh punishments, lack of further industry regulation, and the tax payer footing the bill for multiple bail outs (world wide), the bad practices that prompted the collapse are re-emerging today.
Then there is the cast. Christian Bale as a one-eyed fund manager with Asperger’s*prophesying the downfall to come. Carell as the seemingly last ethical man on Wall Street, leading a dogged investigation into the state of the housing market and the unsavoury practices being engaged in. Ryan Gosling all but twirling his mustache in slick satanic glee as he lifts the curtains on all the ins and outs of global finance (while seeking to profit from the fall). Brad Pitt as the paranoid ex-trader that’s investing it all in shotguns and canned food. It’s a stellar cast at the top of their game, given interesting material to work through.
Although it may sit a little odd lionising this real life rag-tag bunch of misfits that profited from the collapse of the global financial market, that is only part of the point of The Big Short. After all, this is a film that actually portrays members of the regulatory bodies as either blind or in bed with the big banks (literally I mean, on both accounts). It counts on a healthy dose of rage from its viewers, and tells its tale with a stinging amount of satire.
What we are ultimately presented with is a heck of a trick, a movie that takes the driest subject matter possible and turns it into something as engaging as a heist film, or an investigative thriller. That alone is worth the price of a ticket. Add the great cast, and you are looking at a film that is a worthwhile investment of your time.
* An actual diagnosis of the real Michael Burry, rather than Hollywood shorthand for “smart but awkward.”