UK Release Date: 22nd January 2016
Runtime: 130 minutes
Director: Adam McKay
Writer: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph
Starring: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei
Synopsis: A group of disparate outsiders in the world of banking see the global financial crisis coming and decide to make as much money as they can out of it by betting against the housing market.
The prospect of a film that delves into the nitty gritty of the 2008 financial crisis doesn’t exactly seem like a riveting one. It’s a complex situation and one that largely revolved around arrogant rich people swaggering around shouting unintelligible jargon at each other. Anchorman director Adam McKay, however, has decided that the crisis is fertile ground for an ensemble dramedy. On the basis of The Big Short, he is deeply wrong.
Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers instability in the US housing market that could cause financial meltdown. He begins to “short” the market by betting against it, which draws the attention of trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and subsequently hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) discover Burry’s idea and they enlist retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them capitalise on the upcoming crash.
The Big Short is acutely aware of its central issue, which is how to make the complexity of the crisis palatable for a mainstream cinema audience. McKay’s approach to that is to pat the audience on the head and reassure them that it’s okay for them not to understand. Occasionally, the film’s voiceover – a self-conscious evocation of The Wolf of Wall Street – is interrupted in order for a random celebrity to explain a financial term whilst relaxing in a bubble bath or playing blackjack.
| “You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers.”
On paper, this might have seemed like a good idea. In practice, though, it comes across as incredibly condescending stuff from a filmmaker determined to prove that he is the smartest guy in the room. In place of actual explanation and wit, The Big Short specialises in rat-a-tat ending and deafening rock music in an attempt to paper over the cracks in its deeply uninteresting take on the story of the crisis.
The ensemble cast does a decent enough with the material they are given, but there’s never really even a hint of the person underneath their character’s surface. Bale is the nominal lead for the first half an hour of the film, but then disappears to be replaced by Carell, who spends almost all of his screen time yelling expletives into a mobile phone without context. Women are almost completely absent from The Big Short, unless they’re near-mute wives or gyrating strippers. This is a world full of men doing important stuff whilst women dance for their amusement.
Nothing the actors do though is as infuriating as McKay’s approach to the material, which talks down to the audience at every possible opportunity. The Big Short is two hours of machine gun dialogue about collateralized debt obligations and ISDA master agreements that is completely impenetrable to anyone without an economics degree. Whilst the script makes superficial attempts to address and explain what led to the economic crisis, it never actually gets under the skin of anything or anyone.
| “For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once.”
It’s that lack of human connection that most hampers The Big Short. There’s no single compelling character to match Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. It’s also stark and disturbing not to see anything more than a token glance at the real people who were affected by the chaos of the housing crash. Instead of watching the harsh realities instigated by rich, arrogant Americans, the film instead opts to focus on other arrogant Americans getting even richer. It’s an enormous missed opportunity for drama.
The Big Short is a film that is, much like the bankers it depicts, entirely sure of its own intelligence. And just as in their case, that faith is misguided.
Pop or Poop?
Cocksure and patronising in its approach to its very modern subject matter, The Big Short is a film that knows you won’t keep up and doesn’t care all that much. It’s directed in a flurry of noise and breaking of the fourth wall that never does its job of distracting from how little sense it all makes.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.