The Big Short is the retelling of how the housing market crashed in America in 2007 and subsequently how this impacted the global economy. The documentary style filming follows 3 distinct groups of people. First is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially introverted number genius who is in charge of the investment strategies for his company. He comes across information that in years to come there will be a mass defaulting of mortgages built upon the banks bad policy and he is willing to bet over $1b of his investors money on that fact to get a huge return. Second is narrator/banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who has the same information and is actively going around looking for investment. He comes across hard ass Mark Baum who (unlike other fund managers) doesn’t laugh Vennett out of the room and instead actively investigates if it is true. Lastly is eager young trading duo Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro & Finn Whittrock respectively) who come upon Vennett’s paper suggesting what will happen and subsequently buy into it and try to make all the money they can from their limited funds, using ex trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) as a way in to the elite level of the industry.
There’s always a risk when the topic of a film revolves around banking that the level of engagement with the viewer can very quickly disappear unless it can hold the viewers attention, The Big Short gives it a bloody good go in this regard. The aspects that work in the film’s favour are its instantly recognisable cast, it relatively good pacing, good performances and at times the topic comes across as interesting. Viewers will however struggle with the large amount of jargon that is constantly thrown at them no matter how many times they explain its purpose. Margin Call is another film that deals with the same subject matter and one I preferred as I feel it explained what was happening clearer.
Director Adam Mackay (Anchorman) chooses to display the story half through techniques generally found in a documentary and half through the more traditional plot arc, and the result was something that just didn’t work. There is narration, there are characters breaking the fourth wall and there are short sequences of celebrities who attempt to explain a certain part of what is going on to the viewer in the most basic way. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against seeing Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining some of the finer points of mortgage policies, but if you get to the point in a film, a film which is basically 2 hours of exposition, and you still need to dumb it down for audiences, well then you’re not doing a good enough job with the story telling i’m afraid. There is also an overuse of stills and short clips of modern pop culture (again, another popular documentary technique) to show what time period the events are in. To begin with they were fine but after a while they just became laborious.
The next problem of this picture is that for a comedy (even a black comedy) it isn’t actually very funny. Sure there were a few chuckles but certainly no belly laughs. There’s a couple of situation comedy moments and then there is an over reliance on the script and delivery to carry the laughs, many of which just never hit home. Maybe I’m being too critical but if I go to see a comedy, even one about finance, I do expect it to make me laugh.
The next contentious issue is to do with the morality of the film. You are essentially being asked to engage and root for these guys to be right and to make money, which means betting against the housing market and supporting the collapse of world markets, making unemployment rise and as a result leaving a huge number homeless. The moral compass of this film needless to say is a pretty fucked. And because this is the way the film chose to go it had a knock on effect to the characters. What happens in front of you aren’t interesting characters with development (bar Steve Carell) but rather just re-affirmations of their opinions, and the constant explaining away of those opinions. You can’t really get stuck into any character in any meaningful way.
What does save this film is the performances and the topic. Christian Bale and Steve Carell are fantastic and extremely watchable. While Carell has more story to get involved with Bale’s portrayal is completely believable and grounded. Ryan Gosling was as charismatic as ever and is given enough one liners to keep him likable, even if he is trying to inadvertently bring down the economy. After the big names everyone else does a fine job at filling in the rest of the gaps. One final shout out goes to Jeremy Strong who as a secondary character stole some scenes from some bigger box office names with his execution. As well as this the topic of what happens is an interesting one, and even though it wasn’t told in the most engaging way there is a lot of information here that as a viewer I did not know before.
The Big Short has a bit of an identity crisis with director Mackay not settling on whether it should be a comedy or a documentary and leaves the film in a bit of a mess that is just not that engaging. It’s good performances unfortunately can’t hide the fact that it thinks it is funnier than it actually is and filled with too much jargon that once leaving the cinema, you won’t care to remember.