Film Review: The Big Short

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 3.00.29 pmImage via Paramount Pictures

Director: Adam McKay

Screenwriters: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph

Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling

The global financial crisis seems an odd subject for a slick, star-studded film. Even odder that said film comes from director and co-screenwriter Adam McKay, best known for screwball comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Yet The Big Short, based on the 2010 non-fiction book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, is a surprisingly engaging and thought-provoking experience despite struggling to find a consistent tone.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 3.00.44 pmImage via Paramount Pictures

The plot of The Big Short follows three intersecting storylines, each following a person or group who became aware of the looming crisis long before the rest of the world. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a doctor-turned-hedge-fund-manager in California who is the first to predict the impending subprime mortgage crisis. Burry begins visiting large banks and asking to buy credit default swaps for housing loans, which will force the banks to pay Burry if the loans fail. As the banks believe the housing market is too secure for this to happen, they take Burry up on his offer. A second arc follows Steve Carrell as Mark Baum, an embittered Wall Street hedge fund manager with anger issues and a painful past. Porter Collins (Hamish Linklater), Danny Moses (Rafe Spall) and Vinny Daniel (Jeremy Strong) round out Baum’s team at the hedge fund. The team also begins buying credit default swaps after a fortuitous encounter with Deutsche Bank employee Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who has heard about Burry’s activities and concluded that Burry is onto something. The third storyline follows two young investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), college friends who also catch wind of Vennett and Burry’s activities and become involved in the credit default swap market. Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert, the young men’s reluctant financial mentor. Since we all know that the American housing market did indeed collapse, it won’t come as a big surprise that all of these characters end up making big profits when the crash comes.

What this brief synopsis doesn’t clearly express is the clever, postmodern structure of the film. The fourth wall is frequently broken and the narrative paused to explain complicated financial ideas, with the help of celebrity cameos including Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie. Gosling narrates the story from the opening scene, when it isn’t yet clear who Vennett is or whether he is involved in the story at all. Other characters regularly speak to the camera, sometimes to let the audience know when poetic licence has been taken with events. Montage is used to juxtapose images of America, money and poverty within the plot.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 3.00.59 pmImage via Paramount Pictures

The cast is excellent – both stars and relative unknowns put in great performances. A standout is Christian Bale as the brilliant, socially awkward, glass-eyed Burry. Every pause and slight movement, hinting at his inner complexity and lack of social ease, is perfectly placed to create a performance which is hard to look away from. Carrell as Baum is a little over-the-top but consistently interesting to watch, and his character does gain depth and complexity as the film goes on. Linklater, Spall and Strong provide some delicious comic moments, particularly in the scenes where Collins and Moses travel to Florida to investigate the housing bubble. The normally dreamy Gosling is transformed by dark contact lenses and an odd haircut into an unlikeable and slightly creepy Vennett – showing there is more to Gosling as an actor than The Notebook and ‘Hey Girl’ memes.

It was probably always going to be difficult to strike the right tone in a film about largely sympathetic characters profiting from the economic misfortune of much of the rest of the population, and this film doesn’t quite seem to get there. Should we admire the protagonists, who are for the most part quite likeable, for their astute assessments of the housing market and ability to capitalise on their knowledge? Should we condemn them for exploiting the crash for the gain of a few rather than trying to avert it? The film has elements of both comedy and darkness, but I wouldn’t call it a black comedy – the laughs seem incidental to the plot, arising mainly from watching the characters interact and not from the unfortunate events. At the end, when the music turns sombre and the audience is presented with several screens listing, in small type, the communities affected by the global financial crisis, some of us might stop to wonder what the message is really meant to be.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Matilda Handsley-Davis

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