Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt
Running Time: 130 minutes
Release Date: January 22nd
Early in The Big Short, stock trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) tells the audience that the entire financial system is designed so that ordinary people cannot comprehend it, the reason being so people don’t ask questions or find the whole thing so confusing that they will “leave us the fuck alone”. It is this complexity that has led filmmakers to avoid the subject with a barge pole, especially the 2008 financial crisis that brought the world to its knees; only the documentary Inside Job, J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, and Ramin Bahrani’s underappreciated 99 Homes being notable recent examples. Director Adam McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph, adapting Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book of the same name, tackle the subject head on, in all its complexity from the point of view of a group of Wall Street outsiders who recognised that economy was about to collapse and decided to bet against it.
The chain of events begin with Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a manager of a Californian hedge fund who discovers that the American housing market, thought to be the safest and most secure part of the economy, is flooded with risky loans that have created a bubble that is soon going to pop. He creates a credit default swap market and pumps his investors money into betting against the housing market. News of his activities reach Vennett who decides to invest in these swaps and as a result of accidental phone call, he teams up with Wall Street hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a man fuelled by righteous anger and who believes that this investment allows him to get some payback at the banks who he views as being morally corrupt. At the same time, two young investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who are looking to break into Wall Street, stumble across Burry’s plan and enlist retired banker (Brad Pitt) to help them make the investments necessary to profit from the situation.
It certainly isn’t a spoiler to reveal that all are successful in their investments, but while the film offers a mostly sympathetic portrayal of these characters, it raises the question of the morality of their plight, that these people are attempting to profit from economic disaster, and to make money as millions of people’s lives are destroyed by unemployment, debt and homelessness. It is a question that McKay doesn’t shy away from, and in fact becomes the focal point in the its last act, as the effects of housing markets collapse starts to take over the entire economy. While some characters, such as Vennett, have no problem in profiting from the entire situation, he sees it as taking advantage of the big banks toxic mix of greed and stupidity, for others, seeing the true nature of the corruption that seeps through the heart of the economy is too much to take in.
There could have been a chance that the The Big Short could have ended up as a rather sombre or even preachy piece, but McKay injects plenty of kinetic energy to the proceedings, explaining the complex terminology and numbers in a manner that is relatively easy to understand, though at times still head-scratchingly confusing. This is mainly done either with text explanations appearing on the screen or by having the actors, mainly Gosling, address the audience directly to camera, a technique that not only brings to mind The Wolf of Wall Street, but also strangely enough 24 Hour Party People in the way that characters contradict the events that are happening on screen. Only in its use of celebrity cameos by the likes of Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain to deliver mini lectures does it take this approach too far, coming across as being more patronising than clever.
The Big Short is made with a lot of clearly directed outrage, whose target is not merely a group of individuals but rather an entire system that could allow this to happen. It is easy to see that most people will leave it feeling angry about the events that led to the crash and how the people responsible for not only remained unpunished but also still retain their positions of power. The banking and financing sector, and indeed the entire system, is completely broken but at the same time too powerful to stop or even reform. It is no wonder that after having all his thoughts and beliefs about Wall Street confirmed, Mark Baum doesn’t have the heart to say, “I told you so”. It isn’t any use, the bankers know they are going to fine.