Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph
I was about 15 when the when the financial crisis took place and understood absolutely nothing about what was happening. Now I’m a 23-year-old student studying for a degree in History and still have no understanding of what happened. The big obstacle faced by any film that aims to tackle a story based on a major economic incident is that few people understand economics and even fewer care to understand. It is near-impossible for any film to invest its audience in a story that they cannot follow so Adam McKay’s job in The Big Short is to try and present a hugely complicated and often dull subject to the average mainstream viewer in an informative yet entertaining way. Not only does the film succeed in this but it even manages to draw the viewer even further in with its off-beat tone, complex characters and deep moral debate.
The plot can be broken down into three separate but interlinked stories. The first is centred around Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager who notices in 2005 that cracks are starting to appear in the housing market, the bedrock of the U.S. economy. Predicting a financial collapse within the next couple of years he invests the entirety of his fund against the housing market, much to his investors’ displeasure. The second story is set off by a trader called Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who hears about Burry’s actions and realises which way the wind is blowing. He enlists the help of the hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) so that they might profit off the greed and stupidity of the banks that caused this impending crisis. The third story follows two young investors called Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who hear about Vennett’s plan. They too decide to make a profit out of this whole mess with the help of the retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). As these characters learn more about the nature of this crisis however they slowly start to realise that the corruption of the economic structure and the scale of the inevitable collapse is greater than any of them could possibly have imagined.
One of the great things about this film is that even though it is tackling a serious topic, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It wants to inform and stimulate its audience but it also wants to entertain them. Therefore The Big Short adopts an off-beat tone that allows it to tell its story however it pleases. If something needs to be made clear to the audience in order for them to follow the story, one of the characters will break the fourth wall and explain it to them. If an analogy needs to be made to explain some sort of economic device or practice, the film will show that analogy in action. If the film is ever in danger of getting bogged down in the details, it’ll throw some comedy into the mix to keep it interesting. This film manages to communicate the information it needs to get across without ever turning into an economics lecture or treating the viewer like an idiot.
What also impressed me was how unheroic the film allowed its characters to be. Michael Burry is driven only by the facts in his actions and simply does what those facts have determined to be the soundest financial move for his investors. Jared Vennett, the film’s narrator, makes it clear from the start that he is a Wall Street shark and is only interested in making money. Mark Baum serves as the film’s moral centre as he shows himself to be deeply sickened by the reprehensible greed of the banks but he’s also an antagonistic, self-righteous jerk who has no qualms about calling somebody an idiot to their face. The satisfaction these characters get from profiting off the banks’ mistakes is sullied for some of them by the realisation that they are to a certain degree part of the problem. While they’re making a fortune out of this mess, honest and working people all over the country are going to lose their jobs, savings and livelihoods. The film enters a fascinating moral debate as the faith some of these characters hold in the American economy is destroyed. Yes, they always knew that greed and stupidity were rife on Wall Street, but what they’re witnessing here is downright criminal!
The Big Short is a challenging film that pisses you off in the right way. As soon as the credits rolled I wanted to march straight over to the nearest bank and punch everyone there. This film handles its subject matter in just the right way to educate its audience and to invest them. Through clever writing and editing the film draws you into the ins and outs of this complicated yet deathly serious subject while managing to be interesting and entertaining. While The Wolf of Wall Street depicted the despicable and corrupt nature of the economic system by portraying its grotesque and deplorable characters in an exaggerated way, this film does it by educating its audience and then directly confronting the morals issues at stake. The Big Short is a compelling, funny, creative and, above all, an important film that is uncompromising in its candour and directness.