Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt
Seeing Adam McKay, the writer-director best known for his comedies with Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers), as the Oscar nominated director of a Best Picture candidate about the housing market crash might seem strange to some. However, it is actually quite a logical extension of his talents. In a previous life McKay was a writer on Michael Moore’s series The Awful Truth and has written pieces for The Huffington Post. And anyone who saw the end credits of his comedy The Other Guys – effectively a PowerPoint lecture on Ponzi schemes and Bernie Madoff – will know this obviously is a subject about which he has strong views.
Based on Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the film follows a handful of stock traders, all loners and outsiders, who saw the 2008 housing market crash coming and managed to spin it to their advantage. Eccentric, mildly autistic, flip-flop wearing money manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the first to spot that the housing market is being propped up by an increasing number of bad mortgages and is heading towards a cliff. On his heels is Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a crusader with a very short temper and an amazing nose for bullshit, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a slime ball from a major bank who wants to make sure he gets his, and a pair of fledgling investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who get a seat at the big boy table by calling in a favour from their old mentor, Wall Street hot shot turned hippie Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). While the arrogant banks refuse to hear their warnings, these guys set out to short the housing market by buying up credit default swaps, which effectively amounts to betting against the banks and the conventional wisdom which says ‘housing is strong.’ If, or rather when, the market crashes they are going to get rich, but in the process they discover that the system is so broken that the looming disaster is beyond what they had imagined.
Subprime adjustable loans, credit default swaps, mortgage backed securities, synthetic collateral debt obligations. The Big Short is dealing with some pretty complicated stuff. Fortunately McKay knows that we don’t need to understand everything, we just need to understand enough. And in order to make sure we understand enough he pauses the film when necessary to give us tutorials. But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill economics lectures. We get Margot Robbie in a bubble bath sipping champagne and explaining subprime mortgages, chef Anthony Bourdain in his kitchen telling us about collateral debt obligations, and Selena Gomez at the blackjack table illustrating synthetic CDOs. These straight-to-camera, fourth-wall-shattering explanations of the key financial terms we will need to understand moving forward relieve the burden of exposition from the characters. One of the hypotheses the film posits is that the American public didn’t see this coming because they were kept distracted by vacuous celebrity culture. So McKay uses those same celebrities, this time to keep us informed. It is a clever device and a nice touch.
While at times bitingly funny, The Big Short does not look like a comedy. Where comedy is almost universally shot with a stagnant frame, McKay wanted to employ a more verite style for this film so enlisted the services of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, best known for his work with Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips, United 93 and Green Zone). The result is an image bursting with energy – short takes, close-ups, lots of camera movement. This energy is aided by flash montages of pop, celebrity culture, and a willingness to break the fourth wall. Characters will turn to camera and exclaim their disbelief that particular dialogue exchanges actually occurred, and at other times they will confess that what we are seeing is not actually how it happened but it works better this way for the movie.
The characters are introduced to us as a collection of “loners and outsiders.” Despite the fact that they are all actually very highly paid Wall Street traders, The Big Short succeeds in engaging our desire to cheer for the underdog, particularly when they are confronted with the greed and smugness of the banking establishment. But that is where a wonderfully awkward paradox emerges. These characters aren’t heroes. They aren’t trying to prevent an economic meltdown. They simply see it coming and seek to profit from it. They are neither saviours nor Robin Hood figures. So in our desire to see them vindicated, to see them succeed and stick it to the big banks, we actually find ourselves cheering for the Global Financial Crisis, the economic meltdown which cost so many people their jobs, homes and savings. But McKay embraces these contradictions and they ultimately prove to be what makes The Big Short so interesting. As the meltdown approaches the tone of the film darkens. The characters’ moment of triumph is undercut. When the two young traders, Charlie and Jamie, momentarily celebrate their windfall they are immediately chastised by Brad Pitt’s character, the conscience of the film, who reminds them that forty thousand people die whenever unemployment goes down one percent, so while they may be pleased with themselves, they shouldn’t dance.
The Big Short is part tragicomedy, part seventies paranoia film and part didactic docudrama. It is fueled by a righteous anger, a moral outrage. McKay wanted to make a movie that pulled back the curtain on finance at Wall Street more aggressively than other movies had. The banks were clueless or criminal. Either way, they were motivated by greed. He invites us to laugh at this unusual David and Goliath tale, but makes sure we experience the full bitterness of the pill we have to swallow at the end. The big banks got bailed out, no one went to prison, and the greed-fueled system goes straight back to doing what it was doing.
Review by Duncan McLean
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