Winter has always historically been a great time for movies. Sure, the summer has its blockbusters, but winter brings out the real heavy hitters – it’s the run-up to ‘awards season’ which culminates, of course, with the glitzy Oscars. And The Big Short could just be this year’s Best Picture winner.
Directed by Adam McKay (yes, the same McKay that brought us Anchorman!), it tells the story of the 2008 mortgage crisis and how the housing bubble burst to collapse the world’s financial economy. Okay, on paper this doesn’t exactly sound like riveting cinema, but the fantastically nifty script and top notch acting from the ensemble cast makes The Big Short far more fun than it has any right to be. I mean, it’s a film about despicable financial sorts who bet on the inevitable collapse of the US economy, and win – and yet McKay manages to pull off a compelling, funny, informative, and quite shocking movie without ever resorting to Michael Moore-style lecturing.
The story follows several characters as they slowly figure out the flaw in the financial system. We have Mark Baum (an excellent Steve Carell), the head of an investment company who is angry at a system that seems to be broken; Michael Burry MD (an even more excellent Christian Bale), the anti-social hedge fund manager who is the first to examine the AAA-rated mortgage bond and sees the inevitable disaster that will soon follow; Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a smug, smooth-talking investor who inadvertently stumbles upon the impending collapse; and Charlie Geller (John Magro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Whitrock), two young investors who wish to trade with the big firms, but need the help of ex-broker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to do so.
The Big Short is complicated stuff – it never ever pretends to be anything less, which is, of course, the point. The housing market and their financial models are designed to be impenetrable. ‘Credit default swaps’, ‘Subprime mortgage rates’, ‘Synthetic CDOs’ – it doesn’t take long for the viewer’s eyes to glaze over at the terminology used. And as Gosling explains to the audience – in one of many quirky ‘breaking the fourth wall’ moments – this is exactly how the banks like it. McKay does employ the hilariously surreal technique of having celebrities explaining the financial gobbledygook in layman’s terms - once again, addressing the audience directly. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath expounding on the housing market could just be the ‘wtf!’ highlight of 2015!
The cast is terrific and the performances are top-notch. They bring a three-dimensional humanity to the people they portray is quite a hard task, considering that they’re not really the good guys. Okay, so didn’t cause the financial crisis, but they sure did profit from it! Part of the system, they see the crash coming but their aim is to cash in rather than prevent it. Bale’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of nerdy number cruncher and thrash-metal fan Burry is remarkable – he spends most of his time alone in a room looking at a computer screen, so doesn’t have the luxury of having other cast members to bounce off of. Carell is fantastic, and gives a career-best performance. He brings a genuine passion to his character, who is absolutely furious at the system – even though he reluctantly profits from the misery of thousands of homeowners at the end. Pitt is essentially the film’s voice of conscience and morality – after he helps the two young investors profit massively from America’s economic collapse, he bitterly dampens their celebrations: “Do you have any idea what you just did? Just don’t fucking dance.”
The scary thing is, despite exposing the poisonous housing bubble that led to the 2008 collapse, and for all of The Big Short’s finger-pointing – at the banks, the investment firms, the greedy CEOs, and anyone else willing to make a profit off the backs of the poor –the film unsettlingly tells us at the end that the banks have changed almost nothing in terms of the way they operate, and the big fat cats continue to exploit and profit off the humble poor mice. So what else is new?
Absolutely compelling viewing with superb performances from the entire cast. An eye-opening expose of the housing bubble and financial economic crisis of 2008, McKay delivers an entertaining film that informs without becoming preachy.