DIR: Adam McKay • WRI: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay • PRO: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Kevin J. Messick, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt • DOP: Barry Ackroyd • ED: Hank Corwin • DES: Clayton Hartley • MUS: Nicholas Britell • CAST: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Adam McKay, co-founder of Upright Citizens’ Brigade, SNL writer and director of Anchorman is now an Oscar nominee for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. His career in the world of comedy led to this recognition for a film that straddles between comedy, drama and at times documentary. The Big Short is an exploration of the American housing bubble building up to the 2008 Financial Crisis, brimming with the righteous anger of McKay’s liberal politics, as glimpsed even in his more light-hearted screenplays like The Other Guys or The Campaign. This is a turning point for his career now that his big heart and sense of humour meet the intellect necessary to have clarity in explaining the drier details of financial regulation to a general audience.
These details are not explained well at first. The narrator acknowledges that most people would have trouble keeping track and that the financial world’s trickery depends on impenetrable terminology to either bore people or deter them from challenging so-called authority on such matters. Techniques of documentary filmmaking such as stock footage and explanatory text are used to outline crucial details as is Ryan Gosling’s narration. Eventually, the filmmakers attempt an even more daring tactic in breaking the fourth wall with vignettes that address the audience directly. Celebrity cameos break down financial instruments through simplistic analogies. Characters stop scenes to tell the audience about historical inaccuracies in how events are being portrayed.
Ryan Gosling’s character not only narrates but addresses the camera. His character is a deceptive antagonist so giving him the role of audience guide is an innovation. He is luckily one of the few actors charming enough to pull off talking to camera and his taunting responses to the “energy” and “judgement” of the audience carries the same weight of an actor on-stage in the theatre.
These moments of breaking the fourth wall just about work. It’s a fun device that forms the essence of this film as a playful but unflinching statement on the Financial Crisis. This statement alone explains its success in Oscar nominations which also include Best Picture and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Christian Bale. Bale plays Michael Burry, a real-life hedge-fund manager who identified discrepancies in the American mortgage market in 2005. The “big short” of the title refers to the strategy he and the other main characters employ, to bet against the supposedly-unassailable housing market and make huge earnings once the property bubble bursts. Seeing them trying to convince their investors of the impending crash as they get closer and closer to being proven right, provides the dramatic tension of this film.
Bale comes across as a stereotype of autistic people bordering on Rain Man territory. Socially awkward, mathematically genius, eccentric, abrasive, sees something everyone else doesn’t. We’ve seen this kind of character before and it is far from the standout performance of this film. That recognition should go to Steve Carrell whose portrayal of another investment expert Mark Baum carries weight, vulnerability and great comic timing from his introduction onwards. When one struggles to follow the dialogue, his reactions will tell you what you need to know. Carrell disappears into the character, continuing his recent blossoming as a dramatic actor.
Aside from these two characters and Gosling’s unapologetic banker, the other story we follow features producer Brad Pitt starring as mentor to a start-up seeking to pull off the big short. Pitt doesn’t get much screen-time and for much of it he is silent in the background but he has the reliable screen presence to give his character weight as a mentor figure with the biggest social conscience of any character in the film.
It is somewhat muddled to jump between several unconnected protagonists especially when the ethics of these characters aren’t all that clear. Are they really doing enough to raise awareness that would avoid an economic crisis? If they’re literally betting on the collapse of the financial world, how are they “the good guys” if they stand to profit from it? How exactly were they “sticking it to The Man”? Admittedly, these are questions the characters openly struggle with but they don’t seem to arrive at any definitive conclusions. The Big Short also has a shortcoming that many films on the modern financial crisis have; it doesn’t articulate the voices of people worst-affected by the crisis and if they refer to these people at all, it is in simplistic terms.
On one level, it does seem to side with them by highlighting how much of the property bubble was fuelled by charlatans deliberately misleading poor people and immigrants. Ultimately, it defends poor people and immigrants, pointing the finger at corruption in the financial sector and the politicians who defend it (while having the gall to blame poor people and immigrants for the financial crisis). It even goes as far as suggesting the financial sector failed to predict the 2008 meltdown not because of negligence but deliberate fraud.
Having maintained a mostly light-hearted, adventurous tone throughout the film, the ending strikes a bleak note, reflecting on the lack of accountability since the crash. So little has changed in fact, that the epilogue notes many of the same policies that led to the crash are thriving once again. While this serves as a sobering wake-up call, it does not have the tone of a call-to-arms; more of a horror-movie ending where the bad guys win. The jarring nature of this ending contrasted with the semi-comedic tone of the film is deliberate. It simulates the experience of blissful ignorance as we march towards catastrophe oblivious to the dread.
This is a mostly enjoyable film with a sucker punch of a stark ending. It is also, given there’s already turbulence on the financial markets this year, a timely warning about the dangers of groupthink and systemic fraud. It condemns fraud as both unethical and impractical, since fraud is always discovered sooner or later. Yet its persistence in human culture is truly terrifying.
130 minutes (See IFCO for details)
The Big Short is released 22nd January 2016