The Big Short Review
Most of us have given up on understanding what caused the 2008 financial crisis. We know it had something to do with subprime loans, credit default swaps, and a faulty mortgage market. We’ve also gathered that the banks were to blame along with other large financial institutions, and that the taxpayer has largely borne the brunt of the cost. Adapted from Michael Lewis’ best-selling book, The Big Short aims to set the record straight. Through the stories of a handful of men (all men) who saw the crisis coming and bet on it, writer-director Adam McKay vividly exposes the flaws of the industry and makes a searing indictment of some of the financial sector’s big players.
Narrated by Ryan Gosling, who plays cocky banker Jared Vennett, the story centres on three groups. Michael Bury (Christian Bale), a hedge fund director and awkward financial genius with a glass eye, is the first to spot the problem with the mortgage market. Through hearsay Vennett himself picks up on the idea, which he pitches to fund director Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team. Independently, young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) get wind of Vennett’s plan and decide to investigate, enlisting the help of their friend Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). All three groups end up betting against the market – a practice known as ‘shorting’ – to the derision of everyone they encounter.
Despite its star-studded cast, The Big Short is in fact cut and designed to be much like a documentary. McKay establishes this in the first twenty minutes of the film, with the camera shifting and zooming in and out as it might in a homemade video. The image is grainy throughout, matching the montages of real footage regularly inserted into the film to mark the passage of time. McKay uses a brilliant device to explain boring financial concepts to the audience: ‘the celebrity aside’. The director ropes in famous faces from all walks of life to explain financial instruments through clever metaphors. The surprise and inherent humour in the gimmick does indeed make audiences much more likely to listen to what would otherwise be complex jargon.
The film’s editing is at complete odds with its documentary angle – short, mad cuts and hyperactive montages – yet the contrast works brilliantly. While the narrator painstakingly (and hilariously) goes through the details of the story, the edits conveys the banking sector’s heart-pumping pace.
Gosling renders the ego-driven, but self-aware Vennett with gusto, with matching colourful language. His far-fetched metaphorical insults are a delight to the ear. The rest of the cast match his performance in kind. Much like in Foxcatcher, Carell is unrecognisable as Mark Baum, an obsessive, pushy man burdened by grief. These two roles mark a more mature phase in his career, allowing him to showcase a wider emotional range. Bale is also striking as the socially inept Bury, comic and heart-wrenching in his complete bafflement at the behaviour of his peers.
McKay’s script builds an underdog dynamic which, while well adapted to big-screen stories, appears a little too convenient to be genuine. This is the film’s only real flaw, made all the more confusing by its documentary style and narration, which repeatedly insists that things happened as they are shown. Is this just a device? Certain scenes accentuate this overdramatic tendency: at the film’s climax, for instance, Baum makes a moralising speech to a smug investor before a large audience. And while each of the lead characters are all loosely sympathetic, their naysayers are made out to be morally repulsive. What would the story look like from another perspective? The film might have been strengthened by including one of these into its narrative.
Despite all its exuberance, The Big Short ends on a sober note. It’s made clear that not much has changed in the world of finance since the crisis. The film closes with one of the characters predicting that immigrants and the poor, not financiers, will suffer because of economic troubles. Years later, it’s difficult to disagree.