Almost a decade after the financial crisis of 2007/08 first bubbled up, it remains something of a mystery to most, caused by a series of crazy transactions that look unbelievable on paper. The Big Short aims to make that a bit more understandable, critiquing a banking system that allowed such madness to persist. It certainly tries hard, succeeding in some areas, failing in many more; describing events in frenetically laborious detail, and then launching a stinging attack that falters in the hands of protagonists who are ultimately only in it to make a hell of a lot of money.
History lies at the heart of Adam McKay’s film, adapted by McKay and Charles Randolph from Michael Lewis’ book of the same name. They want to show what happened, and why it happened, and to a large degree they succeed in this ambition. There’s a continuous effort to explain the functioning of myriad Byzantine financial products. While these explanations, often delivered by left-field celebrity choices, stray close to patronizing, they do the job in a world where CDO and RMBS are commonplace terms and nobody seems to know what any of it actually means.
That’s the point that comes across strongest as the story unfolds. Nobody understands the trouble they’re marching towards as they invest in securities reliant on mortgages that can’t possibly be repaid — and no one wants to know, apart from a select group of plucky financial underdogs who figure out the end is drawing near and make their bets accordingly.
It’s this band of the prescient that make up the core characters taking us through events: all real people or close approximations. Ryan Gosling’s slick bond salesman Jared Vennett introduces himself first, providing irritating narration and fourth wall breaking throughout, though he’s not the only one indulging in the latter. He works for Deutsche Bank, and after catching wind of a new trade shorting mortgage bonds, convinces Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his small team to invest. There’s also a tiny garage firm run by Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) on the scene, who are advised occasionally by jaded trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
The lynchpin is Christian Bale’s Dr. Michael Burry, a California-based hedge fund manager with Asperger syndrome. He dresses casually, listens to rock music in the office, reads high fantasy novels, and shows little interest in the trappings of wealth. He’s also the first to realize that the bundling of sub-prime loans is a time bomb waiting to explode, and convincing a number of big banks to create a product that allows him to short the housing market. When it goes south, which it inevitably will, he and the others can cash in big time.
Bale is the stand-out, throwing himself into the role with his usual committed intensity. He melds social awkwardness and dogged brilliance to create a ramshackle prophet, maligned by complacent idiots in suits, and deeply sad at what he’s witnessing as greedy investors try to pull out and big firms attempt to cover tracks when it becomes clear he’s right after all. The others are less convincing. Carell manages Baum’s rage okay, but strays into his shouty comedy persona too often. Magaro and Wittrock are earnest enough, and Pitt does a good line in disgust. Gosling is the real let down, grating in his voiceovers and overdoing Vennett’s obnoxiousness.
To be fair to Gosling, it’s a performance in keeping with the film as a whole. It shoots for a feverish, irreverent style, and falls short too often. The editing is fast, as it cuts in and out of conversations and throws in extraneous footage for quick jokes or to make wider points about the impact all these financial shenanigans have on the majority of the population. Some of it works, but jumping to shots of tent villages feels forced, while the hit rate for the comic touches is no better than 50/50.
There’s a bigger problem resting with the characters themselves. The Big Short spends a lot of time laying into Wall Street, and building up Burry, Baum and co as the far-sighted few who saw where it’s all heading. Which is true, except the screenplay can’t help but make them into the heroes of the piece, when in reality they are just a bunch of guys who saw the mistakes of others and capitalized to make a lot of money.
Towards the end, a move to reflect on this position is enacted, but it’s half-hearted, and after putting them on a pedestal for most of the running time, their sympathy with the audience is already too secure to knock by a little light moralizing. It’s not their greed that created such a ridiculous market, but by shorting it, they still profit, and their sadness at the way things work out seems to be more important than the fate faced by the people who actually lost something.
This moralizing streak, while not misplaced in the scheme of events, also creates an unbalanced ending. By setting them up as anarchic outsiders fighting the power, The Big Short builds towards a final score that can’t be delivered when it spells disaster for millions across the country. Thus, a limp ending is summed up by a glib comment from Baum about the tendency to blame immigrants and the poor when things go wrong.
The Big Short functions best as an entertaining infomercial working through the years leading up to the crash with a number of user-friendly tutorials to explain the often unexplainable. Perhaps if those involved in creating the situation could have accessed these tutorials, they might have thought twice. Then again, barring a couple of collapses, the big banks received handy bail-outs making those years of avaricious accumulation worth it as the pessimistic final note suggests very little has changed. Credit is due to The Big Short for taking on an important topic without becoming grindingly dull or confusing. It’s not the first, or the best film in this field, but it’s adequate entertainment.
Impressively for a new release, the double-disc Blu-ray and DVD package comes with a number of features discussing cast, crew, production and the real story behind the film. It’s relatively short, and all a little self-congratulatory, but it beats the usual deleted scenes alone, which are also of course present.