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.
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.
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.
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.
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.