Every now and then a film will come along that attempts to tell me a story that, though I lived through and can remember, have very little grasp or knowledge of what actually happened. Such films usually come in the form of a mega serious drama or a reverential biopic, but this awards season a different kind of story telling approach was taken in the making of The Big Short.
The Big Short weaves together the stories of three different groups of men, all of whom become intensely involved in the build up to the financial crisis of 2007-2008. We have Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a genius hedge fund manager who back in 2005 notices that the housing market is about to collapse, Mark Baum (Steve Carell), another hedge fund manager, and his small group of colleagues who find out about the situation via a conveniently timed wrong number call from bond salesman Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Whittrock), two young and talented hedge funders who have moved to New York City to make a fortune and come across documentation by Vennett detailing to the impending collapse. In separate attempts to profit from the projected crisis, each of the characters decide to ‘short’ the housing market, meaning betting against it’s continued success by creating default credit swaps which would pay extremely high dividends when the collapse actually occurs. Sounds simple, right? No, exactly. I am not ashamed to admit that, even in my best moments, I had no more than 50% understanding of what the hell was going on. It must speak greatly for the film in general, then, that even though a full 50% of detail flew over my head, I still came out the other end having had a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience. To have played The Big Short in a solely serious and ‘mature’ way would have been an absolute disaster for a wide stream audience, but the genius of the film stems from the fact that alongside its fast paced, high IQ number crunching, it’s also funny as hell. It would be fair to say that there is nothing quite as dry as math, and the filmmakers definitely knew this. By injecting a pitch perfect degree of humour in to the narrative, the entire plot seems to become infinitely more accessible to a casual viewer. That is not to say, however, that the picture doesn’t highlight the more cynical, at times disgusting, side of the banking world, with numerous displays of gross misconduct by high profile figures and a glimpse at the human consequence and impact that the market crash had on normal, working class families. This fundamental difference between the protagonists who are, in essence, hoping for global crisis in order to profit, and the unseen characters, essentially representing us, who are going to inevitably suffer as a result of this situation is an intriguing thing for the filmmakers to play with. As a viewer, you find yourself unwillingly hoping for Dr. Burry’s, Mark Baum’s and Jamie Shipley and Charlie Gellar’s plans to come off, but at the same time you cannot help but feel a slight horror at the way that these men are betting against and figuratively hoping for the demise of millions of American citizen’s financial stability. Ultimately, I think that the film demonstrates to the audience just how seductive the world of banking and financial risk taking can be, regardless of the real world effects it might have on a wider population.
The film is almost Sorkin-esque in it’s heavy reliance on the power of dialogue, and thankfully it boasts a cast that can carry such a responsibility with relative ease. Given pretty much equal screen time, the cast of actors including Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Finn Whittrock and John Magaro all put in fine performances, making the most of the screen time that each receive and making a lasting impression on the audience. Special mention must go to Steve Carell, who as the morally conflicted Mark Baum, continues his rebirth as a credible dramatic actor after 2014’s triumph in Foxcatcher. Carell’s character is perhaps the closest thing the audience have to a surrogate within the narrative, as his character shows the most conflict between the success of making money and the horror and disillusionment with the banking world that the situation evokes. A brief performance is also put in by Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert, a retired banker who helps Charlie and Jamie with their efforts, and as well as bringing a pinch of real star quality to the film, it is nice to see that the actor is still on track with his transition in to an uncanny clone of Robert Redford. I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it at all.
Overall, The Big Short is quite unlike anything I have seen. The distinct comedic vibe that cuts through what is ultimately a very dense and, for some, impenetrable subject matter makes for something that settles just beneath parody, not going so far as to seem spoof like, definitely retaining an air of dramatic credibility even with the filmmakers indulging in quirky techniques like breaking the fourth wall to have a pop culture star like Selena Gomez attempt to explain a tricky term to you! I would suggest you give it a go even if the premise has not grabbed your interest, there is certainly more to The Big Short than meets the eye.