The Big Short is not an easy film to watch on a number of levels. At a basic level, and speaking as a pretty well-educated film-goer, it requires quite considerable concentration to keep up with the financial jargon thrown at you. At a sociological level, the fraud and corruption that were endemic within the venerable institutions portrayed is just unbelievable. And at a personal level, as someone who lost big time when a property deal in Florida went South, some of the scenes are physically painful. But I was lucky in comparison: my loss was ‘just’ money. Many millions of Americans and then, through the global recession, many millions more around the world lost their jobs and their homes through the ensuing collapse. And for many, that led to loss of life.
It’s 2005 and Christian Bale plays Dr Michael Burry, a character whose manner suggests he might be high on the autistic scale. Burry appears to be solely in the driving seat of a huge investment fund – in itself, a surprising fact. Burry sees what noone else has seen – that the whole of the US mortgage market is built on a lie; a lie that the banks and even the supposedly independent financial ratings companies are complicit in for their own short-term gains. Burry is effectively the small boy laughing at the emperor’s new clothes: but going beyond that, he bets all of his company’s investments on that radical view.
We also follow two parallel but unconnected groups chasing the same bet after hearing of Burry’s ideas: struggling broker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) brings the proposition to a team led by Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum is a disillusioned and self-righteous professional struggling with his own personal tragedy. On investigating the depth of the crisis, Baum progresses through incredulity to increasing anger; and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are two up-and-coming youngsters who team with grizzled and retired veteran trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help leverage their limited funds into the game.
The chips are down and as the financial world turns increasingly toxic there are two questions to answer: a) who blinks first between the serried ranks of the institutions, desperate to maintain the status quo, and the maverick brokers; and b) when the music stops, will there actually be any pot left to win?
The director is Adam McKay (“Anchorman”, “The Other Guys”) and his style is both quirky and brilliant – well deserving of his place among the Oscar contenders. We keep breaking away from the action to get insightful explanations from some surprising people (some who make it extremely difficult to concentrate on the message!). The fourth wall is constantly being broken to comic effect, particularly by Gosling who is a pseudo-narrator at times. This is a dangerous ploy for a movie, as this type of narration can be highly irritating to an audience (e.g. see my comments on “Joy” and “Jersey Boys”), but here it works brilliantly. Clever interweaving of newsreel and media footage, and some extremely sharp editing (a well deserved Oscar nomination for Hank Corwin) add to the magic.
The script by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph (gaining another Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay) makes an impossibly complex concept more accessible without resorting to Sorkin-levels of verbosity.
Christian Bale, surely one of the most unpredictable and charismatic actors today, is also in contention for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but that belies the stupidity of these categories: who is the “Lead” actor in a film like this? Outside of that debate this is a film which, as for “Spotlight”, could be considered for an award for “ensemble cast”. In a movie with great cameos from the likes of Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan (“Dr Who”) and Marisa Tomei, it is Steve Carrell in particular who stands out as a dramatic force, following up the impact he made in last year’s “Foxcatcher”.
An extremely entertaining, yet intellectually demanding film, this is a one deserving of multiple watches to help unpeel the onion of understanding. The year is yet young, but this rates as one of my films of the year so far.
Fad Rating: FFFFf.
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