The 2008 financial crisis affected us all in a massive way, but hands up who actually understood the ins and outs of what went wrong eight years ago. Financial rhetoric flies over most of our heads and all most of knew was that really, we’d been royally fucked somewhere along the line and we now have to pay for it.
The Big Short, the tell all novel written by Michael Lewis has been adapted for the big screen by Adam McKay, best known for his comedy films Anchorman and Step Brothers. It is apt that McKay has taken the reigns for the movie- the director opts for a dark and absurd comic approach to what can only be described as a financial Armageddon and the film reaps the rewards of this decision. The Big Short breaks down what happened in 2008 into Layman’s terms for us- making concepts like subprime loans, credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations accessible to us ordinary schmucks. At time it could be said the film even baby steps us through it, making sure we understand every term and the effect that it has on the economy. But instead of insulting our intelligence and being patronising this is more a case of ‘look you need to understand what happened here, we can explain it to you without scrambling your brains.’
The central plot of The Big Short is about four guys who realise that this impending doom is approaching and basically bet against the housing market. These guys are all apart of the system- they are just the misfits that inhabit it. Christian Bale’s Michael Burry is the first to notice an issue with the mortgage bonds; an eccentric hedge fund manager Burry is a nervous man who has spent the majority of his life staying away from people on account of his glass eye and lack of social skills. Burry explains to us at one point in the film that he has never been good with people, but numbers, well that’s a different ball game. Next up is Ryan Gosling’s sleazeball trader Jarret Vennett. Vennett narrates the movie for us and he was really the rat in the system giving the other guys information. Covered in fake tan and sporting a slicked back black hair do Vennett is far from likable, but that’s the whole point. This isn’t a Wolf of Wall Street style glamourisation of rich people stealing from the poor to line their own pockets- this is a full blown attack on the greedy bastards who left everyone down the creek without a paddle.
Steve Carell is on fine form here as Mark Baum, another hedge fund manager who sees what is happening and bets against it. Unlike the rest of the characters here though Baum is more reluctant- adding a moral complexity to the situation and delivering the film’s final gut punch to us all in the closing moments. Finally relative new comers John Magaro and Finn Wittrock play two young investors by the names of Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley. The pair stumble upon what is happening by pure chance but take advantage of their opportunity thanks to some tutelage from ex-banker Ben Rickart, played here by Brad Pitt.
What is so interesting about The Big short is that it takes us down the rabbit hole and never asks us to side with the characters we meet. The central characters are all ultimately taking advantage of a terrible situation and whilst some of them may realise what they are doing is wrong, it ultimately doesn’t prevent any of them going ahead with it anyway. The film points the finger of blame directly at Wall Street and the financial world- laying out the simple facts of what happened and leaving us all to come to the same conclusion. McKay’s decision to mix humour into the situation only adds to the absurdity of the world these guys inhabit; unlike Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street this doesn’t glorify what the crooks are up to- it exposes them and then tells us rather grimly what we all already knew- that we have to pick up the pieces. One scene in particular, where Brad Pitt is negotiating a sale in a pub in England perfectly highlights the problems that were to come in terms of a class divide.
The film’s only real weak points in fact are when it attempts to add a more human element to proceedings. A sub plot about Mark Baum attempting to wrestle with his decisions in the past never really connects for example and the film is much better off dealing with the crisis. Several cameos are also notable in the film and whilst some may find them patronising they came across to me as a clever satire on how we take in information now a days. If it’s not being told to us by someone famous then we’re not interested.
The Big Short may well be the most important film of the year. A startlingly intelligent script, some great direction and great performances across the board help to drill home the film’s message, rarely is a film both so educational and entertaining. Comedy doesn’t get much more devastating than this.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐