The Big Short
Another I missed from earlier in the year – it was actually a late 2015 release in the States I believe – that Netflix has let me catch up with. The Big Short was a surprise award contender in 2016, thanks to its apparently brilliant cast and unique method of examining the financial crisis that has so defined recent world history. Pitt, Carell, Bale, who was not to like here? But then again, is it really possible to craft an effective drama from something as seemingly complicated and immense as the events that overtook the markets in 2008?
In the mid 00’s, a small number of people recognise that the housing market that anchors the American and global economy is about to collapse, due to the out of control greed of financial institutes and the acquiescence of a uncaring government. Unorthodox broker Michael Burry (Christian Bale) goes against the wishes of his investors to “short” the market; Mark Baum’s (Steve Carell) small group of renegade hedge fund managers ponder going into business with the aggressive Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) to do the same; and two young up and comers (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), with the aid of jaded industry veteran Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) decide to try and make it rich quick by taking advantage of the coming chaos.
The Big Short is a very strange movie, at once compelling and engrossing and yet steering so clear of the traditional fictionalised structure you would expect of such a topic that it strikes me more as a particularly well-financed docudrama than a film. It’s long and gets in deep when it comes to the financial minutia that came with the 2008 collapse, but still manages to be weirdly entertaining, director Adam McKay gambling on the premise and winning. While it is all very pedestrian from a visual standpoint, McKay and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd still manage to have fun with things, not least with the well noted cameo appearance from celebrities, as themselves, explaining crucial concepts central to the collapse in cutaways that seem more 30 Rock than Wall Street. The Big Short has a little to thank The Wolf Of Wall Street for – most notably Ryan Gosling’s character – but is ultimately more of a character study, in terms of how characters react to what is happening, than an intense, detailed look at how things unfolded in the mid 00’s.
The film, as stated above in the synopsis, frames itself around three competing narratives, and all three bring something different to the table, unique takes on the crises, what caused it and what was lost (which was far beyond money). In so doing, and in finding the right balance of screentime, McKay is able to make the 2008 financial collapse into a human drama as much as anything else, even if it’s only on the rare occasion that we catch a glimpse of the people who suffer most when things start to fall to pieces. The three divergent paths only cross all too briefly, with the players unaware of each other, The Big Short jumping back and forth between them at its leisure, keeping things clicking over nicely.
Burry is the loner, the tortured genius plagued by bad memories of the past, endlessly frustrated that his investors can’t see what he sees, and that the system later refuses to adhere to his finely tuned predictions. Bale’s performance is typical brilliance from the man, who is able to lose himself so expertly: you have no problem believing that the actor who is best known for a gruff voiced Batman or an overweight con-man is suddenly this kooky, death-metal obsessed lone wolf, who spends the majority of his scenes alone in his office, or engaging in awkward monosyllabic conversations with the few people who work up the courage to talk to him. Burry’s side of the tale is mostly concerned with single-minded initiative and bull-headedness in the face of apparent stupidity all around you, but morphs into something more subtle by the final act, as Burry is left wondering just what being right means, and if such a success is all that it is cracked up to be, a disillusionment with a system so flawed that even the people making money seem inferior to him.
A more multi-character thread is that surrounding Baum’s team of investment brokers/stock traders, though the focus is overwhelmingly on Baum himself, a passionate and outspoken man whose years in the industry have led him to become increasingly outraged by the greed all around, a feeling magnified by an intense personal tragedy recently suffered. Carell, like Bale, does great in a role you might not immediately see him in – I suppose Baum is sort of like an angrier, less consciously jokey Michael Scott – and has some great workers around him to bounce off of from Hamish Linklater as his more cynical underling to Ryan Gosling’s Wolf of Wall Street-esque outsider, who just wants to make as much money from the coming collapse as possible, even as Baum plumbs the depths of how bad things are gotten. If Burry’s plot was focused around the realisation that people are weak, then Baum’s is that the system is weak, weak morally and legislatively, concerned only with covering up its mistakes and stopping anyone from finding out the skulduggery going on. It’s with the Baum plot-thread that The Big Short gets it’s most scathing: Baum himself might as well be an audience surrogate, barely containing his own rage as he encounters case after case of unregulated financial incompetence.
And then there are the two youngsters buttressed by Rickert’s jaded assistance. Rickert, played with the right sense of weary cynicism in Pitt, sums up the effect that the financial trading business can have on those with a conscience: both he, Burry and Baum are burned men, well and truly, by the time the credits roll, unable to even raise a glass to toast their own success by the end of things. It’s through his two protoges that we see most firmly the primary message that McKay seems to want us to understand, namely a bridging of the disconnect between the financial trading and “shorting” and the absolute horror of the tragedy that is about to unfold. Charlie and Jamie are clean, young go-getter types who worry about their parents futures, work out of a basement, and have a catchy back and forth between themselves and with Rickert, the exact kind of relatable, likeable characters you can get behind. But they exhibit that same greed as the witless morons they are shorting, and through them The Big Short most clearly toys with the audiences sympathies. The two dance and holler after pulling off a major shorting operation, only to be rounded upon by Rickert, who soberly informs them that the death rate of the country will rise by an average of 40’000 people for every 1% gain in the unemployment stats, a truly grim pronouncement that does more than anything else to bring home the true scope of what is occurring.
And what is occurring is nothing less than one of the biggest shams in humanity’s history, as banks, investment firms, rating agencies and government watchdogs are all depicted as brazenly conspiring to keep the money train flowing when it comes to the “sup-prime” mortgages holding up the housing market, continuing to do so even after it becomes apparent that they have been rumbled, and then going cap in hand to the White House for a bailout when nothing can be hidden anymore. The level of avarice on display is astounding, going arm in arm with a sheer lack of empathy for anyone liable to lose everything they have: one particularly horrifying dinner between Baum and a broker at the heart of the sub-prime crisis showcases the awfulness vividly, as the utterly shameless man brags about how his wage packet proves his necessity to the financial systems about to go belly up. By the end of The Big Short, whatever faith the characters and the audience had in the system has been destroyed twice over, punctuated by a simple “Boom” from Baum as the crash becomes reality.
I note that The Big Short has been packaged in many reviews and in promotional material as a dark comedy, but it never really felt that way to me: there are laughs for sure, but most of them fly by very fast, and can never quite make up for the cavalcade of misery that hurtles at the viewer throughout the two hour plus running time. If it’s a comedy, it’s one that’s trying to make you chuckle in lieu of crying, and Charles Randolph’s script, from the Michael Lewis book of the same name, is good enough that The Big Short actually manges to pull this off, for the most part.
The Big Short is certainly not a happy movie: the aftermath of the collapse was a lesson in hubris and dodging, as the people responsible suffered some humiliation and financial penury of a temporary nature, while others across the globe paid the real price. McKay portrays how this came about starkly but with the right application of wit when appropriate, using this very unique cipher to bring the complicated tale into some kind of clarity. It’s the uniqueness of the approach that really makes The Big Short stand out, and what makes it worthy of recommendation.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures).