THE STORY – In 2008, Wall Street guru Michael Burry realizes that a number of subprime home loans are in danger of defaulting. Burry bets against the housing market by throwing more than $1 billion of his investors’ money into credit default swaps. His actions attract the attention of banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), hedge-fund specialist Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and other greedy opportunists. Together, these men make a fortune by taking full advantage of the impending economic collapse in America.
THE CAST – Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling & Brad Pitt
THE TEAM – Adam McKay (Director/Writer) & Charles Randolph (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 130 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
It doesn’t seem like a film about how the housing bubble created by bankers brought about the financial crisis of 2007-2008 would be very entertaining. However, Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” is anything but dry. It manages to illuminate how the economic failure occurred with scathing wit and highly-stylized editing that keeps you on your toes. As someone who was in middle school when the economic collapse occurred and only had a vague knowledge of it, the film was surprisingly educational as well.
The movie is based on the 2010 book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” by Michael Lewis. McKay and Charles Randolph won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for their snappy script. The film follows three separate but linked stories revolving around hedge-fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), Deutsche Bank salesman Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling) and hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), and young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). While many of the names (other than Burry) were changed, the facts were remarkably close to the truth.
It’s not a glamourized version of Wall Street as is often shown in movies. In fact, these men are for the most part shown to be better with numbers than with people. The main characters, in particular, Baum and the young investors, seem sympathetic despite their prickliness in comparison to the immoral people they are surrounded by who seemingly have no care for the American people and some of whom even target immigrants. They might be difficult, but they have integrity and it’s enough to win the audience over to their side.
While the movie maintains a sarcastic tone, it isn’t afraid to acknowledge the real consequences of the financial crisis that would occur. One scene depicts a father with a young child who is upset to find out that his landlord hasn’t been paying the mortgage for the house he rents. Elsewhere, the young investors seek the aid of Ben Rickert, a retired trader who has rejected the Wall Street culture and who cautions them to not forget the human impact of their dealings. Rickert is played by a nearly unrecognizable Brad Pitt under a beard, long hair, and glasses.
Bale garnered a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the role of Burry and it’s easy to see why. He leans into the character’s eccentricities and endues the performance with a vigor and energy that helps propel the film along. While Gosling is appropriately slimy as Vennet, it’s Carrel who has the other standout performance as he struggles with the morals of his work alongside recovering from a family tragedy. All of the men in the movie have been camouflaged to look like the people they are portraying and the results are effective.
The film’s style is very polarizing from the breaking of the fourth wall to the choppy cuts. The film is narrated by Gosling’s character and he and others often directly address the audience. Bits of music, from rock songs to the “Phantom of the Opera” theme, are often intercut with montage-y sequences. Titles and labels flash up at times, some helpful, some sarcastic. The styling gives the whole movie almost a mockumentary feel.
Four celebrities have cameos to explain economic concepts throughout the film: Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, chef Anthony Bourdain, and economist Richard Thaler. These asides, while a bit jarring are very helpful in explaining the theories and reasoning behind the action. Somehow Margot Robbie explaining the concept of a subprime mortgage while drinking champagne in a bubble bath just makes sense within this movie.
One of the titles states, “Truth is like poetry. And people fucking hate poetry.” It’s not hard to imagine that this film has its detractors as well. Its style is polarizing and requires getting used to. It also is a film that requires some brain power to watch and process all of the different storylines and concepts.
I could also see where some might criticize the film for the fact that there aren’t any lead female characters. However, women do populate the background of the film and are seen working in finance positions. For me, it seemed that part of the point was that this boys club atmosphere of bragging and one-upping each other contributed to the crash itself.
With “The Big Short,” McKay succeeds in taking a very complex subject and making it easy to understand and entertaining. For all the movie’s humor and sarcastic wit, it presents the market collapse as the tragedy that it was and doesn’t shy away from how horrific it was. Perhaps McKay’s film might be watched in college classrooms at some point in the future when teaching about the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Aided by phenomenal performances all around, this movie illustrates how bankers caused the housing bubble that brought about the financial crisis of the late 2000s with scathing wit and humor.
THE BAD – The over-the-top style and editing may be off-putting to some viewers. It’s a movie that requires a lot of devoted brainpower to watch. while still being talked down to in some cases.