Four denizens in the world of high-finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s, and decide to take on the big banks for their greed and lack of foresight.
My favourite film of the year to date is an entertaining, scathingly funny and sharp riposte of the financial crisis, taking aim at the financial industry and the people who worked at senior level with a wicked satirical edge that works because of how close to the truth it gets. ‘The Big Short’ is the third great film about the financial crisis of 2008, coming somewhere in between ’99 Homes’ focus on those ultimately affected the most and the forensic approach at boardroom level of ‘Margin Call’. The film primarily focuses on three main parties who saw the crisis coming and identified the underlying problems in the housing market, then used the information to ‘short’ the market (to essentially bet big on the market failing, but I’m sure Margot Robbie in a bathtub can explain better). I have a higher interest level in this subject than I guess your average person does which undoubtedly heightened my enjoyment, but on all levels, this is a terrific film.
The film begins in 2005 by introducing us to eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who discovers that the US housing market is extremely unstable. No one wants to listen to him – not his boss, not his shareholders and not the representatives of several major financial organisations who all laugh him out of town. His response is to back himself to make a profit from what he knows to be true, and he does this by negotiating with the banks, who effectively create a product for him to back against the housing market, believing he is crazy and they’ll make a fortune of it. This news spreads around Wall Street, bringing several other investors and characters into the film’s orbit, with the primary focus of the film split between Burry, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a dubious trader who forms a partnership with another hedge fund manager, Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and a couple of young investors (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro), who get involved separately with the support of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). The film does a good job of showing the disdain these men were shown by the major banks and rating agencies, who’d developed a system that they believed couldn’t fail. It’s a great ensemble, all well-acted and the film zips between the various arcs to tell the overarching story.
Adam McKay’s direction is part of what sells the whole story, with his comedic background coming to the fore as he allows his engaging cast to develop a strong repartee to deliver the script with wit and a light touch. He also uses several interesting techniques to get round the jargon heavy banking industry by frequently breaking the fourth wall through Vennett and some hilarious asides to explain the various banking terms and products that are featured. This feeds into the satirical edge but beneath the style and craftsmanship at play, there’s a real story that the film never loses sight of; that of an industry that became so focused on making money and an environment where ratings agencies, regulators and the big banks were so deeply intertwined to the extent that no one could see the problems deep at the heart of the system. McKay portrays his characters not as knights in shining armour, but more as opportunists who saw through the bullshit and it’s never too far from the surface that real people lost out badly in this situation whilst our protagonists all made money.
There are two especially great moments that really hit hard about the problems within the industry and cut deeper than the lighter touch generally taken by the film to the material. The first follows Baum and Vinnie (Jeremy Strong) as they go to visit one of the credit rating agencies to question why bonds filled with subprime mortgages were still being classified with the highest possible rating, which illuminates a lot about how the whole situation was allowed to get as bad as it did, and eventually collapsing. The second focuses on the standout performer in the ensemble, Steve Carell, as he discusses how he tried to help his suicidal brother by offering him money. This minor personal moment in a film focused on the issue at hand can be seen as a thematic explanation for the financial crisis as a whole. Instead of looking at the real underlying issues, banks and executives threw money at the problem instead of trying to fix it. The whole ensemble is terrific but Steve Carell is particularly superb and it’s difficult to understand how Christian Bale (as good as he is) got an acting nomination at this year’s Academy Awards ahead of him.
‘The Big Short’ is a film that I found to be terrifically entertaining, sharp and biting about its subject matter and directed with flair and originality that elevates the (already) interesting subject matter. It’s a bit heavy handed with its ‘message’ at the end, but I’ll forgive a couple of missteps in a film that is on the whole fantastic.
Directed By: Adam McKay
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan, Max Greenfield, Billy Magnussen and Tracy Letts