The financial crash that took place in 2008 is something that affected all of us, either directly or indirectly, and yet it’s not something that a huge number of people fully understand.
How did it happen? What caused it? And why did nobody see it coming? Sounds like a great idea for an informative documentary, right? The only problem is, informative documentaries don’t tend to put bums on seats in the cinema, even if it is on a subject that people are interested in.
But what if you took your documentary idea and handed it to Anchorman director Adam McKay, and turned it into a fourth-wall-breaking comedy/drama filled with Hollywood A-listers? Ladies and gentlemen, The Big Short.
The film maintains the documentary style: grainy aesthetic, naturalistic camerawork, and frequent cuts to various stills and photos, some of which are relevant, some seemingly random, and some of the pop culture that the film suggests distracted us all from the impending economic disaster.
The story follows the men who, in various ways, discovered what was coming, and bet on it, to the complete and utter incredulity of everyone else.
Christian Bale’s Dr. Michael Burry, who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, is the man that first cottons onto the fragility of the housing market, while Steve Carell’s hedge fund manager; Ryan Gosling’s slick bond salesman; and the triumvirate of Brad Pitt’s seasoned trader and John Magaro and Finn Wittrock’s young up-and-comers are the men who decide to look into Burry’s claims and realise there’s a fortune to be made while nobody else is looking.
Of the starry cast – which also includes Rafe Spall, Melissa Leo, Marrisa Tomei, and Karen Gillen – it’s Christian Bale who stands out. As the socially unconventional Burry, he’s brilliant, and the script does well not to hammer-home his condition. It’s an understated and yet hugely committed performance from Bale.
Carell, meanwhile, continues to prove his dramatic chops, and the young duo of Magaro and Wittrock as junior members of the housing/banking world are engaging and provide the closest thing to an audience proxy the film has. Gosling and Pitt don’t have all that much to do, but are as reliable as expected when called upon.
When it comes down to it, The Big Short is as smug and self-satisfied as its protagonists, using all sorts of clever, knowing tricks to tell its story, and your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for the smarminess both in front of and behind the camera.
Everyone in the film is mega-rich and looking to capitalise on the impending ruin of millions by getting even richer. Some of them (primarily Carell’s Mark Baum) at least have the decency to feel bad or be angry about the situation, but it’s fully ¾ of the way through the film before anyone even mentions the effect that all this global money-wrangling will have on the regular folk: that one moment of conscience standing out amid an ocean of crass self-interest.
A sequence where Rafe Spall’s trader investigates a housing project/community is also superb, highlighting the hateful practises of many letting agents and noting how few newly built housing communities ever get fully occupied. Thankfully, the script is funny and fascinating enough to keep you going even during the heavy moments and despite the deliberately insufferable characters.
For those worried about understanding all the technical jargon, fear not – the film has a cheeky flourish up its sleeve: to help lighten the mood and demonstrate the complex financial squabbling, the film periodically cuts to a random non-sequitur in which a celebrity – playing themselves – speaks directly to the audience and explains everything for the layman. Margot Robbie, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez… they all crop up to help clarify things. And it actually works!
You might not leave the cinema as an expert ready to dive into the financial sector, but you’ll have a firmer grasp on roughly what happened to create the housing bubble and why it was inevitably going to burst, and you’ll leave having smiled and laughed along with it.
As hard as it tries, The Big Short is not a documentary, but it is, broadly speaking, a true story. And that’s truly frightening – even more so given the sense that we don’t seem to have really learnt anything from it. But despite that, the script is fun and fast paced, and the lively soundtrack and fast edits create a very vibrant picture.
The Big Short is a curious beast, pitching somewhere between documentary, drama, and comedy. It shouldn’t work. Between the subject matter and the smug presentation, it should either be boring, or unbearable. But somehow McKay’s film pulls it off, and presents an entertaining film that’s rather unlike any other.
Released in UK cinemas on Friday 22 January 2016.
What did you think of The Big Short? Let us know below…