The Big Short

Posted: February 13, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Adam McKay. Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling.

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In 2005 eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale) realises that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the American housing market is unstable. In an attempt to make money for himself and his clients he persuades major banks to allow him to bet against the housing market, so called ‘shorting’, something that no one else has done before because the housing market is perceived as completely secure. Thinking that Burry is, essentially, crazy the banks agree to his terms. His clients aren’t happy with this as they too believe the failure of the housing market is an impossibility.

Deutsche Bank trader Jared Vennett (Gosling) learns of Burry’s theory and decides he may be onto something, still he has trouble persuading anyone else to invest in his own shorting of the banks until a misplaced telephone call puts him in touch with Mark Baum (Carell) the somewhat unconventional manager of a Wall Street Hedge Fund and a man with serious anger management issues. Baum is intrigued enough to dig into the housing market, and he and members of his team (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall and Jeremy Strong) head to Florida to see if there’s any truth behind Burry’s scheme. They find evidence of large scale foreclosures, non-payment of mortgages by landlords, and dodgy business practices used by unscrupulous realtors, signing people up to mortgages they can’t afford and cutting every corner they can to make money.

On the back of their investigation Baum and Co sign up to Vennett’s scheme.

Meanwhile a pair of eager, yet naïve, investors Charlie and Jamie (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) stumble upon a discarded copy of Vennett’s proposal and are intrigued enough to want to short the market as well. The trouble is they’re too small scale to be allowed to do so, and so they have to enlist the help of retired banker (and conspiracy theorist) Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

As time passes the collapse of the housing market seems more and more likely, yet even as the economic apocalypse approaches the housing market remains buoyant due to suspect practices by the banking sector and the dishonesty of the ratings agencies, and Burry, Baum and the others come to realise the enormity of what they’re involved in. If the housing market collapses they’ll make millions, but the fallout of this will see thousands lose their jobs and be made homeless, and as Rickert points out, people will die.

The first question that pops to mind when considering The Big Short is this; can you make an interesting film about the 2008 crash when the focus of this is a lot of people in suits talking about subprime morgages, shorting, credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations and AAA ratings. On paper it certainly doesn’t sound remotely engaging.
And yet somehow McKay has managed to make a film that holds your attention. It’s a film that’s hard to pin down: Part polemic, part economics lesson, part detective story, it almost feels like a heist movie at times. It veers from black comedy to conspiracy drama with ease and even goes so far as to channel the documentary style of Adam Curtis. It features a top notch cast, and structurally it features not only a fourth wall breaking narrator in Ryan Gosling’s character, but also fourth wall shattering asides featuring real life celebrities providing dummies’ guides to some of the jargon on display, and whilst some have questioned this tactic, finding it jarring, for me it fitted perfectly into the narrative, and while I appreciate some comments regarding sexism, having Margot Robbie explain the nuances of subprime mortgages whilst sitting in a bubble bath ensured I paid attention if nothing else!

Actor wise it’s one of those interesting films where there are exceptional performances from actors whose characters never meet, so really we have three intertwining stories; one is essentially a single hander, featuring Christian Bale who does a great job as the eccentric genius who everyone thinks is nuts. Clearly Burry has Asperger’s but whilst some actors might have overegged the pudding, so to speak, Bale instead opts for a more nuanced and realistic portrayal of someone who has difficulties in social interactions—the fact that he doesn’t have to share any scenes with the other big hitters in the cast gives him added room to breathe.

By Contrast Carell and Gosling are right in the mix, surrounded by strong performances from the likes of Spall and co, and yet both produce good performances. As with the character of Burry, some actors might have taken Baum to extremes, but despite his background in comedy (or perhaps because of it) Carell manages to stay the right side of the fence. Carell’s Baum is a man who was angry even before he realises just how crooked the world he inhabits is, but if anything having something to focus his anger on actually seems to help him as a character, and of all the characters Baum is the one representing the audience, the one who gets truly angry about what happens, the one who expresses our horror at the situation. Gosling is almost his flipside, a glib trader who makes no bones about the fact that all we wants to do is make money, yet Gosling still makes him an appealing narrator.

Pitt isn’t in it much but he still turns in a good performance as the cynical ex-banker, a man you initially think might be a bit of a nut but who may be the sanest man in the room, and along with Carell it is he who channels the horror of what is going to happen.

The film is somewhat flawed. It is a trifle too long, and the part where we’re waiting for the crash we know is coming should feel tense yet manages to feel only baggy. Although not quite the misogynistic film some have portrayed it as, the lack of strong female characters is quite striking. Marisa Tomei as Cynthia Baum does the best she can but she just doesn’t have enough to get her teeth into, and similarly Adepero Oduye as Baum’s boss has her moments but again is side-lined too much. I appreciate that finance and banking are still seen as very masculine environments, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t women working within that world, and the omission is even more striking given that one of the focuses of Michael Lewis’ book was Meredith Whitney.

Though nuanced for the most part, at times the film does get a little sledge hammery, most notably when Melissa Leo’s Ratings Agency employee, who it becomes clear is choosing not to see the real picture, is wearing dark glasses—just in case we didn’t get the point!

The biggest failing, although perhaps also its biggest strength, is that by focusing on the clever sods who saw it coming while everyone else ignored the signs, we become a little inured to the eventual outcome, and whilst the film does try to show the effects on everyday Americans, really its main focus—and I’ll go back to the heist movie analogy here—is on the smart guys who saw flaws in the system and exploited them, and when it seems they might not make out like bandits after all, I found myself worrying because I really wanted them to succeed, which given their success means thousands upon thousands lose out, perhaps sends out the wrong message. But like I say, the focus on these characters is also the film’s big draw so you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Overall a very good film, enjoyable and educational in equal measure, I just feel like I should have felt angrier at the end than I did. Not quite AAA rated but an awful long way from Subprime.

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