There’s an odd contradiction at the heart of The Big Short, as it’s a movie where the ‘heroes’ are people who managed to make out like bandits due to the world economy collapsing. Thankfully though the film knows that and is at pain to point out that while the main characters may have realised what was going on before anyone else, they’re also aware that while what they’re doing may be good for their investors, it’s also built on the back of the misery of a lot of normal people.
Based on real events, the ensemble film tells a trio of interwoven tales set during the run up to the economic meltdown of 2008. Christian Bale is Michael Burry, an eccentric hedge fund manager who realises that there’s something strange going on in the housing market, and that the financial instruments that it is now based on are a house of cards that have become increasingly corrupt and that it’s only a matter of time until the whole thing collapses. While these instruments are rising in value and billions are being made from them, Burry knows that many of the underlying loans they are based on are worthless.
He decides to create something called a Credit Default Swap, which allows him to bet against the housing market. The banks are happy to take his money and treat him like a fool, as the housing market has never collapsed. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) gets wind of what Burry is doing, and realises he might be right. He has difficulty convincing others though, until he meets Michael Baum (Steve Carell), a man already sickened by the corruption and fraud in the financial industry, who agrees to buy millions of dollars worth of swaps.
There’s also financial small fry Jamie (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie (John Magaro) – and by small fry we mean they’re only worth a paltry $110 million – who realise this could be the deal of a lifetime, so team up with retired financial whizz Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), to get some of the action. However, while the events that Burry predicted start to come true – increased loan defaults and signs that something very bad is happening – the value of the packages of loans continues to rise, putting the men’s bet increasingly at risk, even as it becomes increasingly apparent they were right about the sleight of hand at the heart of the system.
Reading that, you’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds incredibly dull. A load of guys making trades while talking about complicated financial stuff that none of us understands is not traditionally the stuff of thrilling cinema. However, as with the fact these guys aren’t heroes, the film knows that and openly admits it, using cutaways and people talking to direct to camera to explain boring things in an entertaining way. The likes of Margot Robbie (in a bathtub) and Selena Gomez show up to explain things to us, while the characters sometimes break the fourth wall to tell us what we’ve just seen didn’t really happen that way, but the truth was less cinematic and more long-winded so they showed us a different way.
It could have seemed like a smug and tedious way of doing things, but it works extremely well. Indeed, there are times when it feels as much like a drama documentary as a traditional movie, but it works extremely well. This is a film that wants to educate us and get people angry about what’s taken place in the financial world over the past few decades, and that palpable feeling helps ensure it’s always interesting.
When he was first announced for the film, co-writer and director Adam McKay seemed a strange choice. He’s best known for broad comedy, particularly his collaborations with Will Ferrell such as Anchorman and Step Brothers. However, he gets to show here that he’s a very smart man with a keen political and financial sense, while his comedy background means he can make a movie about finance far funnier and more entertaining than it has any right to be. He certainly deserved the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar he picked up alongside co-writer Charles Randolph. Coupled with a great cast and a good sense of propulsion and pace, and you’ve got a very good film.
Overall Verdict: A film about people doing financial trades may sound insanely dull, but The Big Short is anything but. With a keen sense of outrage, a great sense of humour, good actors and a great way of explaining exactly what happened before the global financial meltdown, it’s well worth watching.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac