Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater
Written by: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay and (based on the book) Michael Lewis
Running Time: 130 mins
Release date: 22nd January 2016
In the middle of the last decade, the housing market took a massive tumble, as the banks of America collapsed. In turn, millions lost their homes and jobs, leaving the country in a state of recession. Except for a group of men who predicted this was going to happen and so took on the bankers and the system to gain as much as possible for their greed and lack of foresight. This is the centre of Adam McKay’s satirical and biting examination of how the high-flying bankers and mortgage lenders got it so wrong and how it took the little guy to show them that greed isn’t necessarily good.
Michael Burry is a socially awkward master of numbers who notices a flaw in the mortgage industry. Millions of people have been given the chance of owning their own homes with any credit checks or even ability to pay the loans back. So he decides to buy into a system, with guarantees, that will surely collapse eventually. When rumours started, banker Jared Vennett saw an opportunity and took it to Mark Baum, an idealist who wants to destroy the banks for the corruption that they have inflicted. Yet some predictions can go wrong.
The Big Short is a financial movie. Entering into its web of technobabble and banking quips can certainly be a real head-spinner. If you watched Wall Street and only came away with the “Greed Is Good” speech, then this might be troubling, because McKay doesn’t water down the wordiness a world alien to most. Yet at the same time, while trying to fathom out exactly what they are saying half the time, he has created a surprisingly fascinating and often entertaining slice of anti-American Dream. It’s also a surprising film because McKay is normally associated with comedies starring Will Ferrell (Anchorman, The Other Guys, Step Brothers etc).
Using an array of tricks to convey his story: quick succession editing of news reels and still photos, each representing the narrative spoke over them; having the characters break the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience; getting celebrities to explain the more complex moments of the banking jargon (Margot Robbie in a bubble bath?), he has taken an otherwise confusing and baffling story and given it a level of excitement you wouldn’t expect.
Added to that, there are moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, from the broad to the incredibly subtle, which, even when there are moments you find yourself scratching your head, still makes it watchable. What is more incredible, is that among this array of styles, changing of tone and pace as well as dipping in and out of satire, the overall story is one of shock and horror. That the banks could be so flippant about human beings and their livelihood, just so they could line their pockets.
The cast is all excellent. Brad Pitt (who co-produced the film) makes a brief appearance as a former banker who now is more interested in seeds. Ryan Gosling, sporting a dark, tight perm and spray tan, is often hilarious as Jared Vennett, while Steve Carell proves once again he is more than just a comic actor, as Baum, a man grieving for his brother, angry at the world in general and who wants to stick it to the banks big time. Finally, there’s Christian Bale as Burry, a simple, quietly spoken loner who has difficulty speaking to people, yet has the foresight to see there’s a huge problem with the banking system. His is the stand-out performance and truly deserving of an Oscar nomination.
The Big Short has been compared to both Wall Street and Wolf of Wall Street. You can understand why: all dealing with greed and monetary success. Yet that’s where the comparisons should stop. This is a much more complex and detailed look at a world with its own language. There are moments when this language seems to take over too much and you are lost in a world of equality and bonds. Some of the incidental editing does become jarring in places but its heart is in the right place, the performances are very strong and in the end, its long running time of 130 minutes, isn’t that long after all.