It’s a very good thing that “The Big Short” tells its story in such a humorous way because if you weren’t so busy chuckling, you’d be crying. Or possibly howling with rage. The story of the downfall of the American housing market and its knock-on effects which are still reverberating around the global economy may at first glance make for a dry subject for a drama but thanks to a witty script and an excellent cast, it transcends its complicated subject matter to bring light – and a light touch – to the darkest chapter of recent economic history.
Filmed in a quirky, mock-documentary style, the chain of events which led to the global financial collapse are so ludicrous and ridiculous, you would be forgiven for believing “The Big Short” was the “This Is Spinal Tap” of the financial world except it all actually happened. The only thing more broken than the financial markets in the movie is the fourth wall, as bond trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) frequently narrates or explains directly to camera what is happening or, when required – and boy is it required – to reassure us that yes, these events really did happen as shown.
Based on Michael Lewis’ book, the film charts the creeping, inexorable collapse of a housing market propped up by sub-prime mortgages and increasingly complex and dishonest financial vehicles from the discovery of the true risk exposure by unconventional fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) through the wilful negligence of the investment houses and banks and ultimately to the small group of traders who understood the real significance of Burry’s discovery and acted accordingly.
Although based on real people, the names have been changed although it’s unlikely the intent was to protect the innocent. Indeed, if the film has one flaw it’s that it rarely takes the time to really explore the real world ramifications of the avarice and actions of its protagonists. While we may cheer on the exploits of cynically pessimistic fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) or the plucky young self-made traders Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), it’s only after the end credits roll that you remember you’ve been watching fantastically wealthy people becoming even richer by profiting out of the misery of ordinary people (no matter how it may be dressed up as ‘punishing’ the banks for their greed and recklessness). In fact it’s only Baum who exhibits any real concern for the people who will be crushed by events and even born-again ex-banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) can’t resist getting back in the game to short the banks and make a killing at the expense of real peoples’ homes and lives.
It’s the performances from the excellent cast which manage to keep you onside and it’s Carell who emerges as the most valuable player. Mercifully free of the silly putty adornments which constrained his turn in “Foxcatcher”, Carell proves he can really act, managing to avoid any inadvertent reminders of Michael Scott or his other zany, comic turns of past films.
Director and co-writer Adam McKay, here making his dramatic directorial debut (reputedly a chance he was only afforded in return for agreeing to helm “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”), deftly juggles the intertwining storylines, peppering the real-life events with satirically tongue-in-cheek celebrity cameos to provide fourth-wall shattering crash courses in financial terminology. With the likes of Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain popping in to untangle the acronyms, the film keeps the drama centre stage without being crowded out by its subject matter.
Consistently entertaining and absorbing, this is an important film which exposes the ludicrous degree to which the great power brokers of the world, be they governments, vast corporations or regulatory bodies were all complicit in their own downfall and blithely unconcerned about the potential collateral damage it caused. After the astonishment and amusement provided by the film has faded, all you’re left with is anger at what happened. Anger and the disquieting conclusion that none of the individuals or institutions involved in the crash haven’t really learned anything. If those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, then those who ignore this film are doomed to miss out on a tremendous movie.