Review – The Big Short

The laughs may be plentiful in Adam McKay’s vigorous and impassioned dissection of the catastrophic financial crash, but the joke – as so many discovered – is ultimately on us.

Filmmakers have largely distinguished themselves when it comes to exploring the global financial meltdown and The Big Short, although over-the-top at times, is an illustrious addition to this growing sub-genre

Filmmakers have largely distinguished themselves when it comes to exploring the global financial meltdown and The Big Short, although over-the-top at times, is an illustrious addition to this growing sub-genre

Whilst the ‘collateral damage’ caused by the fraudulent greed of so many within a morally bankrupt and deregulated industry is touched upon in McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book, the director’s gaze is more squarely focussed on the small group of individuals who foresaw – and came to profit from – what so many others either couldn’t or didn’t want to see back in 2007.

This approach has drawn criticism in some quarters for largely ignoring the consequences meted out on ordinary folk but, much like the subprime mortgage crisis that helped fuel the collapse, the central players in The Big Short operate within their own bubble.

CRASH! Hedge funder Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale) in The Big Short

CRASH! Hedge funder Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale) in The Big Short

These are the other guys – to employ the title of McKay’s 2010 comedy – hedge fund manager Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who is the first to realise the U.S. housing market is built on sand and uses his investors’ money to bet against it; arrogant, but smart trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who stumbles across Burry’s predictions and smells an opportunity; Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hedge fund manager who is repulsed by the excesses the industry has spawned but nevertheless swims with the sharks; and young investors Charlie Gellor (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who also chance upon Burry’s work and, with the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), try to make a killing on the collapse.

The film follows each group (they never come into direct contact with each other) as they defy their colleagues by betting against a AAA-rated system they are convinced is on the brink of oblivion.

Former trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) finds himself back in the game in The Big Short

Former trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) finds himself back in the game in The Big Short

Whilst we know the disastrous events that followed the crash when it eventually arrived in mid-2008, The Big Short takes a procedural approach by having its core cast kick over the rotting carcass that was/is the banking and housing markets and navigate their way through the chaos and bullshit that seemingly permeated every nook and cranny.

McKay paints his supporting characters in broad strokes, whether it be a pair of wildly reprehensible real estate douchebags who boast to Baum’s team about how much money they make selling snake oil to people who want their big house(s) at any cost; or Melissa Leo’s Standard and Poor’s ratings agency rep whose sight problem is a none-too-subtle metaphor for the wanton blindness of the system at large.

The irony is also palpable when several characters attend the American Securitization Forum in, of all places, Las Vegas and see for themselves just how far some will go to bleed the system dry for the sake of a buck.

Outspoken Wall Street hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) tries to keep himself in check in front of suave hot shot Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) in The Big Short

Outspoken Wall Street hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) tries to keep himself in check in front of suave hot-shot Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) in The Big Short

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the main protagonists here are guys who placed their chips on the entire U.S. economy failing, but in case we get carried away in the moment, Pitt’s wary ex-banker castigates Gellor and Shipley for celebrating, reminding them – and us, of course – exactly what it is they are betting against and the human cost it will incur should they be right.

McKay’s frantic direction, employing crash zooms, freeze frames and plenty of hand-held camerawork fits the farcical comedy of much of the film, although it’s notable that things calm down as the laughs dry up in the final act and are replaced by a bubbling anger.

The film’s tone and regular breaking of the fourth wall is reminiscent of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (a major influence according to McKay), in particular Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath for some reason), chef Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez who provide ‘for dummies’ explanations to camera for the financial sector’s more batshit creations.

Filmmakers have largely distinguished themselves when it comes to exploring the global financial meltdown and The Big Short, although over-the-top at times, is an illustrious addition to this growing sub-genre.

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14 comments

  1. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · February 4, 2016

    Nice review mate. A lot of people have been sniffy about this but I really enjoyed it. I thought it got a bit lost in itself in the final third but it kept me hooked throughout.

    • Three Rows Back · February 6, 2016

      Cheers buddy. Been struggling to find the time to write up my reviews!

  2. ckckred · February 4, 2016

    Nice review man. I thought The Big Short did a solid job at adapting Michael Lewis’ book and both Carell and Bale are in top form. But I think the movie’s self-aware bits and cutaways hurt the dramatic subtext of the picture. It is a solid picture but it could be a lot better.

    • Three Rows Back · February 6, 2016

      Ta buddy. The cutaways have been criticised by a number of people for the very reason you say and I can completely see that perspective. I must admit I’m unsure as to why Robbie was filmed in a bubble bath, but overall I thought they didn’t pull me out of the film.

  3. le0pard13 · February 4, 2016

    Another of my favorites of 2015 and fine adaptation of the Michael Lewis book, which was extraordinary itself. Fine review, Mark.

    • Three Rows Back · February 6, 2016

      Thanks mate. Not read Lewis’ book, but I certianly will be after watching this.

  4. ruth · February 4, 2016

    “These are the other guys…” Very nice Mark, I totally got the reference there. I actually thought the approach work in making the subject matter easy to digest AND entertaining. Finance isn’t usually a fascinating subject, yet under a capable direction, it can be pretty amusing, such as this one. Yet I think the *horror* of the crash is not lost on McKay, and it was quite tense at times as you watch the bubble burst. The scene inside the Lehman Brothers was heartbreaking.

    • Three Rows Back · February 6, 2016

      Yeah, that scene at Lehman was a culmination of everything that had been coming. Chickeens coming home to roost. I must admit I’ve been impressed with the number of quality films made about the crash; Inside Job is an especially great documentary.

  5. Movie Quibble · February 7, 2016

    Nice review. You have swayed me not to see it. It’s interesting that McKay has made a serious (or as serious as he can be) film purely about finance. The stock market manipulation/ investment fraud subtext of The Other Guys was just bizarre. Clearly he cares a lot about the injustices surrounding this sort of thing (or was directly affected and lost money because of this sort of thing).

    • Three Rows Back · February 7, 2016

      Do you mean that I’ve swayed you to see it rather than not see it? If not, then I didn’t sell it very well!

      • Movie Quibble · February 7, 2016

        You described it well enough for me to think: Nah, I will see Spotlight in the cinema instead. haha.

  6. Mannes in Cannes · February 8, 2016

    Great movie, great review. Like a classic Hitchcock flick, we find ourselves egging the baddy on at the end. That’s an achievement in terms of writing and directing – and what makes the film resonate long after the screening when we realise the implications.

  7. Victor De Leon · February 15, 2016

    fine write up! on my to watch list for sure. thanks man!

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