The Big Short, 2015.
Directed by Adam McKay.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, Max Greenfield, Melissa Leo, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Tracy Letts, John Magaro, Jeremy Strong, Marissa Tomei, Karen Gillan, Stanley Wong, Byron Mann, Margot Robbie, and Selena Gomez.
Four denizens of the world of high-finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000’s, and decide to take on the big banks for their greed and lack of foresight.
There’s a moment a few minutes into The Big Short where, after you’ve been bombarded with the ins and outs of mortgage backed securities and sub-prime loans, you are watching Margot Robbie in a bubble bath and drinking champagne, explain in layman’s terms, US mortgage bonds. Strangely, this isn’t an attempt to bamboozle you further, or to join in with the banks’ deliberate obfuscation of ‘high finance’ – it’s actually a perfectly orchestrated, 4th wall breaking rejoinder that has the effect of making you listen up, and neatly sums up Adam McKay’s deliriously entertaining stab at the heart of what happened to the global economy in 2008.
Our window into the inevitable cataclysm comes via three different Wall Street funds, led by Christian Bale’s Dr Michael Burry, a socially awkward, death metal loving, numbers genius; the tightly wound Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) who walks a tightrope of profit making finance and social conscience, and a ‘garage band’ outfit run by two young up and comers, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro). Thrown into the mix are Brad Pitt’s bank hating and humanity loving retired trader, Ben Rickert, and the devilish narrator of the ensuing meltdown, Jared Vennett (a curly be-wigged, charmingly horrendous, Ryan Gosling).
It’s Michael Burry who first spots, back in 2005, the financial fragility that the banks are blindly building their straw houses on, which basically amounts to loading toxic investments into the money version of the emperor’s new clothes. To Burry it’s a simple case of playing the numbers. To Gosling’s Vennett, who picks up the Burry rumbles from a self-satisfied stockbroker in a bar, it’s the steal of the century, and it isn’t long before he persuades Mark Baum and his team to get on board. For story-telling simplicity’s sake the two youngsters, Shipley and Geller, get their heads up from Vennett’s own draft proposal left behind in the lobby of J P Morgan. The actual truth is slightly more convoluted, as the film-makers enjoy making clear in another 4th wall breaking aside.
In fact, making the convoluted finances of the sub-prime mortgage debacle 8 years ago not only vaguely intelligible, but fun to watch, is the real wizardry at work here, and any further explanation of where and how the wheels came off would just detract from the enjoyment of watching it unfold. It is essentially the greatest Hollywood-sprinkled NPR drama-documentary never made.
Some may balk at the use (or over-use) of asides to camera, and talking heads to pause and explain complex concepts, but where else are you going to experience the sight (and sound) of Professor of Behavioural Science and Economics, Richard Thaler PhD, and pop princess Selena Gomez explain Synthetic CDOs over a poker table in Las Vegas.
If you’re not sure what a CDO is, by the time The Big Short comes to a close those three letters will come to represent vainglorious greed in the extreme; and it’s in Vegas at a Mortgage Securities Convention that all the whiz-bang fun and games muddy into the actual horror of what’s happening. As Pitt’s Ben Rickerts says to the two youngsters after they celebrate another potential windfall deal, ‘You just bet against the American economy. If we’re right, people lose jobs, people lose homes…’
It would have been easy to just populate this kind of story with a bunch of instantaneously hateful characters, but the author of the original book, Michael Lewis, was smart enough to focus on those who, although they work in the rarefied world of big money, are actually recognisably human. McKay, and his writing partner Charles Randolph, have managed to take that original tome and idea, and with near perfect casting (Carrell and Bale being the standouts), construct magnificent movie entertainment out of catastrophic collapse.
A little word of warning though – there is ultimately little catharsis for your watching trouble. In the end you can’t help feeling a little dirty, unable to help yourself enjoying a rare movie mix of popcorn and scalpel sharp insight; and the aftermath of cleverness, stupidity and greed.
The Big Short is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital. Buy it on AMAZON UK or AMAZON US
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★