How did the director of Anchorman and Step Brothers manage to pull off this remarkable achievement? Adam McKay achieves an improbable task here with The Big Short; turning the dauntingly impenetrable catalysts for the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), and the terrifying-to-consider effects, into a tremendously entertaining comedy-drama. He also never ignores the tragedy of the event and isn’t afraid to dig deep into the world of complex mortgage derivatives and use inventive approaches to make it accessible. The film is a damning indictment of Wall Street, from the angle of men who saw the crash coming and who begin to realise what their unexpected profit opportunity meant for the U.S financial system, and the rest of the world.
The Big Short is based on the Michael Lewis’ (Moneyball) best-selling 2010 book of the same name, detailing the GFC that spawned from the housing and credit bubble, built by large-scale fraudulent activity within Wall Street’s corrupt financial institutions. When the bubble burst millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes, and The Big Short joins Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street and 99 Homes as terrific films that have all taken a unique angle on this tragedy. It’s qualities include the breathless pace, the phenomenal ensemble cast, Barry Ackroyd’s (The Hurt Locker) shallow focus camera that captures the claustrophobia and the emotional tension of the closed-door meetings, and the fabulous soundtrack.
The plot is a labyrinth, full of different players with conflicting motivations. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) was one of the first to predict the collapse, having scoured enormous amounts of data and recognising that a large number of subprime loans were assured to start going south. He bet an enormous amount of his investor’s money against the housing market on credit default swaps, much to the horror of them all. His insane investments caused some attention on Wall Street, with douchey banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) one of the few who clicked to what was going on. He gets into the business with short-fused, ultra-jaded hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team. At the same time a couple of energetic young traders (Finn Witrock and John Magaro) catch wind of the bubble set to burst and seek out an ex-Wall Street guru, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), to get a spot at the grown-up table.
What makes this film fun to watch is McKay’s playful direction – Ryan Gosling’s character is our narrator, often breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience in a House of Cards-fashion. The film’s lathering of jargon is made digestible through the use of celebrity cameos – for example; celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain puts together a seafood stew from day-old leftovers to describe the way a CDO is put together from reject loans. In another sequence Vennett uses a game of jenga to convey the hierarchy of loans (AAA v BB) in an effort to explain to Baum and his team just how messed up the situation really is. Even if you have no interest in this subject, McKay wants you to really know what’s going on.
There is so much else going on plot-wise, that these little diversions give extra weight to the decision-making and emphasise the characters’ clouded morals. One would expect these millionaires to be horrible, unlikable people, and yet we manage to sympathise and recognise the moral conscience beneath their initial desires to turn the pending plummet to their advantage. This is especially clear in Carell’s Baum, the closest the film has to a hero. While his cynicism about Wall Street has been brewing for years, he still has to see evidence for himself. He and his team (a perfect combination of actors – Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater and Rafe Spall) do the leg work, visiting foreclosed estates and interviewing cocky bankers who boast about granting risky loans. The horror is written all over his face.
McKay draws outstanding performances from his entire ensemble cast, building rich, interesting characters to take us through this compelling web of stories. Everyone is working perfectly in sync throughout. Gosling’s motormouth scores a large chunk of the laughs, and Carell tops his dramatic turn in Foxcatcher for which he was nominated for an Oscar, but it is Bale who leaves the biggest impression, with the most physically challenging performance. Burry is an Asperger’s sufferer with a glass eye who spends most of the film in his office; a hideout where he often sleeps and crunches numbers while listening to death metal. Bale’s mannerisms – his stuttered speech and his blank stare – are so convincing the chameleonic actor yet again surprises us.
After being unexpectedly honoured by the National Board of Review Awards and the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle, we started paying serious attention to this film. Now that it has also deservedly secured SAG and Golden Globe nominations it has emerged as an Oscar dark horse. This film achieves an incredible balancing act; being both hilarious and fiercely critical about a dark chapter of US history.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Adam McKay
Writer(s): Adam McKay, Charles Randolph
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall
Runtime: 130 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: January 14, 2016