The Big Short

2015 – USA

– Adam McKay

Adapted from the book – ‘The Big Short’ by Michael Lewis

Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

Words: J. Wood

The financial crash of 2008 has provided material for a number of interesting films over the past few years and this is another, telling the story of the select group of people who bet against the housing market, seeing the disaster that nobody else did, and still profited from it.  Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt star in this most interesting film.

The man who has made a directorial career out of harnessing Will Ferrell’s overgrown man-child act for the big screen would not be one of the first names I would have expected to have written and directed a smart, funny yet remarkably scathing black comedy about the world of finance and get two Oscar nominations for it but hey, we live in a world where a Jay Roach film is Oscar nominated.

The Big Short is the very best of both worlds.  Think about the two major films that have emerged from the most recent Global meltdown, Margin Call and The Wolf of Wall Street, this manages to get fully to grips with the technical side in the way that the painfully underrated Margin Call did whilst at the same time hitting the mass entertainment notes that Scorsese’s bloated film manages so effectively.  This is a film that relies on four ‘oddball’ characters to lead the action, only two of whom ever interact.  The film is really three stories told as one incredibly well-edited film.  Indeed, it took me over an hour to realize that there was to be no intersection.  Look at the characters; Mike Burry is a weird, glass-eyed, socially awkward hedge fund manager, Mark Baum a perpetually angry, embittered and traumatized investor, Jared Vennett the Jordan Belfort type and Ben Rickert the enclosed has been who got sick of it all.  None of these are characters you would base a movie around, yet McKay somehow does it with all four.

The four leads are all very strong, but none more so than Carrell.  He is the perspective of the director and screenwriters’ opinions on the subject.  He hates the life of Wall Street trading, everybody knows it, most of all his wife (Marisa Tomei), yet he is unable to function without it.  Carrell adds another string to his rapidly expanding bow with a performance that at first appears to be a one note shouty, sweary effort before becoming mellowed somewhat by his embitterment at the situation.  There are two great scenes, one in which he interrogates a stripper about her mortgage, and one in which he finally realizes quite the economic situation that he is exploiting.  Both of these scenes give nuance to a straightforward character, and Carell once again proves his worth as a dramatic actor by giving these scenes the necessary reactions.  Similarly pitched to this role is that of Ben Rickert, but of the leading quartet Brad Pitt is given the least exposure, and so can only make so much.  Christian Bale is uncharacteristically oddball and it surprisingly suits him.  I had always thought Bale too intense an actor to take on any real comedy and even though this is kind of like halfway house comedy, he does impress and hint at being able to tackle such roles in the future.  Of the four leads it is Ryan Gosling, made up to look eerily like Leonardo DiCaprio’s version of Jordan Belfort that makes the least impression, but then he has the least interesting role to be honest.

Elsewhere throughout the film there are interesting secondary roles, played by impeccably cast actors and actresses, be it for a single scene or throughout the movie.  The film may be permanently tinged with the blackly comic edge of Randolph and McKay’s writings.  Moving briefly into territory that was inhabited by Michael Shannon and Andrew Garfield in last year’s 99 Homes, there is a brilliant dramatic sequence as two callous realtors expose to the audience the levels of the sham that is being perpetuated by all those in charge of the economy.  It is a really eye-opening moment, the moment that you realize that the opportunism and greed did not stop, as publicized, by the bankers but seeped and perpetrated even the most basic pond life like individuals.  The final few minutes very cleverly takes you back to what seem to be insignificant moments from earlier on in the picture and provide a harrowing view of the real effects of people’s greed and stupidity.  This is not dissimilar to the weirdly incongruous info-graphic that appeared over the end credits of McKay’s The Other Guys.

As a filmmaker Adam McKay really impresses here by not just relying on a script and a stellar cast but employing some hitherto unseen nous in putting together a very well thought out narrative.  Take for example his extensive use of stock footage to emphasise his point; in less steady hands this is a very ill thought out process that just looks clumsily cut and pasted in but here it helps to steady the cuts and better link between the narratives playing out simultaneously, a feat for which editor Hank Corwin deserves some credit.  The film does have some flaws though, not least the distracting camerawork that seems to be trying to make the film look like a documentary for no really good reason and with no apparent pattern.  There were some scenes where this really looked quite amateurish.

Even for a film which basically spends its two hour plus length saying ‘I told you so, and so did these men’ (the funniest line incidentally being Mike Burry, when asked as to how he pinpointed the mortgage crisis, simply stating that he read the information, something not even lawyers did), the mugging fourth wall breaking and celebrity cameos explaining the financial terms being used by the film (I still did not fully understand all the financial gobbledygook behind it, even after a champagne supping Margot Robbie in a bubble bath told me) felt a little too smug for its own good.  That said I appreciate a film this well put together and acted having the gall to stand up and be counted by telling the truth.  I appreciate a writer and director brave enough to come out and anger the businessmen, some of whom are likely involved in film financing, by calling them out as the immoral liars and cheats that they are, rather than be ambivalent (Margin Call, 99 Homes) or glamourizing (The Wolf of Wall Street).  That he made an entertaining film in the process is the cherry on the cake.