PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

'The Big Short' Falls Short

An informative and sometimes entertaining take on the recent financial crisis,The Big Short doesn't quite deliver on our investment.


The Big Short

Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: R
US DVD release date: 2016-03-15

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.

5

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.