The Big Short: uproariously exuberant entertainment, and a stridently unsubtle indictment of the industry that brought the world to its knees in the Great Recession of 2008.
The Big Short essentially tells the story of three different groups of traders who foresaw the subprime mortgage crisis years before everyone else did and proceeded to bet big against the continuing solvency of financial services industry.
Christian Bale engages in a customarily chameleon-like performance as the socially-awkward fund manager Michael Burry, whose painstaking attention to detail leads him to a realisation that the entire subprime industry is sitting on an untapped landmine of opportunity, leading him to spend almost his entire fund to short the market in the face of incredulity from his boss and his investors. The smug, bombastic bond salesman Jared Vennett (played by Ryan Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s actions and goes on the prowl for a willing hedge fund from which to provide the capital to make a killing off of the impending apocalypse. Said hedge fund is run by the cantankerous Mark Baum (an unusually angry-looking Steve Carell), who spends much of the film growing increasingly agitated by the fraudulence, corruption and general rot of Wall Street even as he reluctantly positions his fund to benefit from its impending collapse. A third group, an up-and-coming garage fund headed by two twenty-something millennial types, is also featured, with Brad Pitt in a significant-ish role as the fund’s paranoid, reluctant mentor figure.
It is a film on fast burn, flagrant in its disregard for cinematic conventions, a sometimes unwieldy, but almost-always funny mishmash of drama and documentary. Much of the humor derives from the lampoonery of Wall Street culture and a kind of schadenfreude deriving from the dramatic irony that the audience experiences when watching the stupidity and greed of the banks. Also brilliant are the frequent House of Cards-esque fourth-wall breaking cuts, in which characters address the camera to provide context for the events of the scene. Gosling’s character, Jared Vennett, is a veritable scene-stealer – a keyed-up Wall Street shark type who obsessively works out and goes to meetings flanked by a yes-man and an Asian quant whose sole presence Vennett believes is proof enough of the mathematical robustness of his sales pitch – a kind of funnier, less psychotic Norman Bates.
They work surprisingly well lend an interesting layer of documentary realism to the film, reminding us constantly that this stuff actually happened, and that truth is often more humorously bizarre than fiction.
But despite its uproarious funniness and menagerie of eccentrics, The Big Short has real anger at its heart, like a cinematic equivalent to a Lewis Black rant. It dares us to laugh at the real stupidity and real greed of a Wall Street that precipitated a global financial collapse. And its documentarian sensibilities only serve to underscore the fact that people should be angry that all this stuff really happened, and it was in spirit, not an exaggeration. It’s not interested in bequeathing complexity to Wall Street – the banks, rating agencies, loan salesmen, the SEC – the elements of the teetering edifice – are all portrayed simplistically as greedy, bumbling or stupid. The over-eager Ivy-League grads at the investment banks, the orange-tanned, stripper-club-visiting Floridian mortgage brokers, the bovine, oblivious crowds of securities traders frittering away their money in Vegas, the prissy, fearful, self-interested matrons at the ratings agencies, the SEC officials sleeping with their rich banker boyfriends: The Big Short is interested only as portraying them as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, a Mos-Eisley of overpaid shark-suits and their unctuous attendees. Say what you want about what that makes the film – but the Big Short pursues this depiction in full awareness of intent, and accomplishes its pedagogy in a chillingly effective manner.
But the film, to its credit, doesn’t extend the same treatment to its putative good guys, either. While we do root for our protagonists to profit off the imbecilities of Wall Street, that desire is tempered with the film’s slow-burning build-up to the ultimate hollowness of their victory. At the end of the film, with Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers dead and the rest of Wall Street in free fall, our protagonists reap their profits, soberingly cognizant that they are indirectly benefiting from the plight of the world economy. They are profiteers off the apocalypse. Nowhere is this more accentuated in Carell’s character, Mark Baum, who, in the last scene, struggles with the moral weight of making the biggest trade of his career as the world crumbles around him – and finally relents, making the trade. At the end of the day, the drive to make money – that desire that seems to exist on a rarefied plane of motivation, amoral in its brute logic – wins the day, and we are left with characters who have won so much, but also lost a piece of themselves in the process.
I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 jenga towers