Film Review | The Big Short

Director Adam McKay has the unenviable task of turning the ins and outs of the 2008 economic crash into a sexy black comedy. But according to our visiting critic, it looks like this is a challenge the Austin Powers director just about meets halfway

Financial Country for Big Short Men: Steve Carrell’s righteous Mark Baum faces the Ryan Gosling as cinema’s oiliest dealmaker-slash-narrator
Financial Country for Big Short Men: Steve Carrell’s righteous Mark Baum faces the Ryan Gosling as cinema’s oiliest dealmaker-slash-narrator

by Marco Attard

Stop me if you know this one: in 2008, the US housing bubble burst, causing the values of securities tied to real estate pricing to crash, hurting institution around the world.

The reason? All too easy access to loans for home owners, leading to an overvaluation of subprime mortgages based on the idea that housing prices will continue going up, as well as questionable trading practices from both buyers and sellers, a financial system prioritising short-term deals over long-term value creation and a lack of adequate capital holdings from banks and... oh, you’re indeed stopping me, but only because you’re already way too bored of this particular story.

And just as well, since that while The Big Short deals with the exact same subject matter, it handles the admittedly all too complex subject material in such an effective manner it will make you care about the goings on in the world’s financial systems. Yes, YOU! And that alone makes it, in short (groan), a piece of film making worth watching.

An adaptation of “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” the well received 2010 non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short foregoes the documentary stylings of other films dealing with similar financial topics, such as “Inside Job” (arguably the definitive documentary dealing with the crash) or “Margin Call.” Instead, director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Anchorman 2) adopts a tone that’s closer to a jet black screwball comedy, with cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips) restlessly following three sets of misfits who, each in their way, managed to predict the crisis, and are set to make a profit from it.

There’s Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the eccentric flip-flop-clad fund manager with a penchant for Slayer. Then there’s Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), the one man working on Wall Street holding an actual, working conscience.


And finally there’s “garage band” funders Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), who simply want to make a killing from their findings. Tying the three plot threads together is Jarred Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a Deutsche Bank dealmaker acting as a cheerfully cynical Virgil to the viewer’s Dante as they spiral down an increasingly complicated financial hell. And in case one gets slightly all too lost McCay brings in a few celebrity cameos to further explain what on earth actually happened in the build-up to 2008, including the likes of Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain.

Will Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDOs) make more sense following an explanation by a naked Margot Robbie taking a bubble bath? Probably not, but in a way that’s kind of the point - if there’s something to be gathered from The Big Short it’s that Big Money likes to involve Big Complications, and those responsible for it would rather it remains that way.

Gratefully, while it retains a brisk and often comedic tone, The Big Short does not forget to have a heart, and as such it never celebrates the gross capitalist excess represented by its banker protagonists.

On the other hand, it is a film simmering with righteous anger even as various points have the protagonists plot to bring the system down in the name of fun and profit. It also helps that the cast provides some excellent performances - it is good to be reminded just how good of an actor Christian Bale is, Steve Carrell’s indignant Mark Baum is a delight and Ryan Gosling was clearly born to play the part of the slickest and nastiest narrator around.

Further aiding the film is an excellent supporting cast, such as Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Marisa Tomei and Brad Pitt (in a near unrecognisable appearance as Ben Rickert, the paranoid guru to the bumbling Shipley and Geller).

Eventually, as the story reaches its eventual conclusion, The Big Short slows down, with the Nicholas Britell taking a downbeat turn to highlight a bleak change of scene. The financial crash happens but, unlike what tends happens in the comforting fiction we generally consume, nothing is learnt from the very human suffering it brought about.

On the other hand, as Gosling’s narrator cheerfully points out, the situation surrounding the global financial system remains more or less the same as it used to be.

The Big Short’s ending moral might be exceptionally bleak, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling. The film itself might be at times feel overly smug (its celebrity cameos suggest the average viewer might not be interested in the subject matter unless it features a famous person) but it remains a worthy piece, even more so in these days of growing greed amidst economic uncertainty.

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