My aim of seeing all eight Best Picture Oscar nominees moved one step closer after a recent trip to see one of the favourites to take the prize, The Big Short.
A film about the last financial crash may not immediately sound appealing or indeed funny to you; however Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book is an impressive and compelling film well worthy of your time. As someone currently reading the book, I can certainly say that McKay’s ability to turn what is quite dense and complex material in to a relatively easy to grasp script is to be commended. Best Picture aside, this is definitely a worthy contender for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The Big Short could have been made in to a serious film, taking the dire events of 2008 and converting them in to a dense drama, as has been the trend with other films on the crisis, such as Margin Call, which have failed to grab the interest of a wider audience. It could also have become a Michael Moore-style documentary. The fact the filmmakers haven’t chosen either of these paths is to their credit and is the key reason why the film has proven so popular. That isn’t to say it’s a laugh-a-minute comedy; it isn’t that at all. It does however brilliantly highlight the utter absurdity of the financial world that created the ticking time bomb that ultimately caused loss for so many people. Unless of course you were one of the few who could see it coming…
Another great choice, which aids in conveying such complex information in a more digestible form, is the frequent breaking of the fourth wall. Ryan Gosling (playing Jared Vennett) narrates parts of the film and the characters seemingly allow the audience to be in on the trick and often address you directly, almost to see if you think what is happening and being allowed to happen by Wall St. is as crazy as they do. It enables the audience to feel involved and engaged by the topic in a way that a dry film couldn’t. On top of this, the amusing cut-aways to “dummies guides to the more complex concepts” by the likes of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, work wonderfully. McKay knows this is not a topic people engage with easily and challenges the instinct to switch off by presenting the material in a way that surprises you in to sitting up and paying attention.
Such tools also work so effectively here due to the quality and confidence of the cast. The film focuses on a small group of people who realised the dangers most were blind to and played the system at its own game. Arguably the source of all these people is Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager whose interaction with the rest of the world is kept to the bare minimum. He communicates with investors by email and with colleagues via the scrawl on the white board outside his office. Bale has been Oscar nominated for his supporting role (this is really an ensemble piece with no true lead) and it is a great performance of a quirky, socially awkward character. Scenes in which he attempts to talk with others feel uncomfortable and he captures perfectly the essence of someone who sees himself as if in a bubble, separate from everyone else. However, he isn’t in the film that much and for me his performance is no more impressive than others.
In my view, the stand out performance is that of Steve Carrell, who plays Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman), a jaded, emotionally troubled and suspicious manager of a Wall St. hedge fund, who after a meeting with Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), the cocky Deutsche Bank bond salesman who cottons on to Burry’s train of thought (played with greasy and arrogant aplomb by Ryan Gosling), realises the frightening possibility that the entire economy could very soon come crashing down and no one seems to have noticed.
His outrage and disgust at the stupidity, arrogance and downright suspect actions of everyone involved in the system that created the subprime mortgage sector, from the small town wannabes arranging mortgages to those they shouldn’t, through to the Wall St. suits and even the ratings agencies, mirrors how you feel watching it unfold before you. It seems utterly fantastical that this was the reality of the financial world and that it had ever been allowed to get so far out of hand. A scene in Las Vegas in which Baum meets a Mr Chau, a CDO manager, was one of my favourites. You see him grow angrier and angrier to the point where he is so appalled he has to leave before he is sick. Coupled with his shocking meeting with the ratings agencies in which he realises they don’t seem to care what is beneath the supposed triple A ratings they are dishing out, his utter disbelief is something you relate to as an audience! Carrell is thoroughly believable in the part and carried a lot of the emotional weight, whether comedically or otherwise.
The third group are perhaps the most surprising players in this huge bet. Instead of being Wall St. types, Charlie and Jamie are young, ambitious guys who, after setting up a hedge fund in their garage, have set their sights higher after catching on to Vennett’s idea and seeing its potential. For help they turn to their mentor in the world of finance Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) (based on Ben Hockett), whose disillusionment with Wall St. has him living off grid, growing seeds. The relationship between these three is lovely to watch as the younger men look up to Rickert, while he clearly admires their intelligence.
With these three distinct character strands covering such potentially mind-bending material, The Big Short could have lost its way. However, it moves from one to the next without losing pace or becoming repetitive. Instead it gives a greater insight in to the personalities of the varied, but small group who dared to bet against the housing market.
Crucially too, thanks to the script and the actors, you quite like them. Yes, ultimately their actions are being driven by the opportunity to make a fortune, but you don’t view them in the same way as the people they cross paths with on their road to success and it seems impossible that they could have prevented the crisis when so many people simply refused (or were unable) to see the inherent dangers. Ironically, Burry, Baum and Rickert and their teams seem, in some absurd way, honourable in a system of corrupt and morally defective people and by the end most of them aren’t smugly celebrating. Instead you sense their utter despair at what has happened, especially Baum.
The Big Short really is a superb film. It enables the wider world to take a closer look at the realities of what happened to the world’s economy a short time ago. It doesn’t suggest solutions. That isn’t its purpose and in flagging at its end that products called “bespoke opportunity tranches” are now being sold (effectively just another name for CDOs), it poses the question of whether any lessons were actually learnt. It’s refreshing that a film which is often darkly humorous is able to highlight the seriousness of these events and signpost the dangers for the future. If you only ever watch one film about the financial world, make sure it’s this one.
The Big Short is on general release throughout the UK. Watch the trailer here.