The Big Short Review

The Big Short (2015) Movie Review by John Walsh

Director: Adam McKay
Writers: Charles Randolph (screenplay), Adam McKay (screenplay)
Stars: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling

Known mostly for his comedy work alongside good friend Will Ferrell on both the Anchorman duo-logy and Step Brothers; Adam McKay opts to go with a slightly more serious brand of comedy in The Big Short. Boasting a stellar cast and based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, the film attempts to cast light on the 2008 financial crash, seen from the insider perspective and successfully utilising a more grown up, darker humour to bolster what is a pretty compelling story.

It follows the trials and tribulations of three separate ‘groups’ for want of a better word as they all become aware of the impending financial crisis of 2008 and attempt to ‘short’ a housing market teeming with unsustainable, sub-prime mortgages by gambling huge sums of money on its collapse. This of course draws ridicule from the unbearably smarmy banks and the litany of plebs working within, who at this point think themselves untouchable, and blinded by arrogance, blissfully unaware of the danger on the horizon. The same can’t be said for Doctor Michael Burry (Christian Bale); a brilliant analytical thinker and hedge fund manager, he spots the patterns emerging and predicts the crash way ahead of anyone else within the industry. It’s really his character, something of an introvert and rather socially awkward, who bears the brunt of the ridicule at the beginning, as he effectively gambles $1.3bn by convincing (there wasn’t much needed) pretty much every financial institution to let him set-up investments on bad loans going, well… bad.

Hot on his heels and alerted by the bemused gossiping spreading around town of Burry’s sudden investing is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling); a sly, egotistical, salesman at Deutsche Bank, the ultimate profiteer and the narrator throughout. Seeing the potential of massive profits on the horizon, he immediately sets about encouraging Mark Baum (Steve Carroll); something of a rentagob and a disenfranchised worker at Morgan Stanley, still reeling from his brothers recent suicide into purchasing credit default swaps from his bank. Baum harbours a growing resentment towards Wall Street and despite being suspicious of Vennett’s motives, he agrees to look into the viability of the venture, setting out with his team of underlings to investigate the growing bubble of sub-prime mortgages. This reasonably short sequence begins with them encountering a pair of cocksure, perma-tanned, mortgage brokers that draw the chagrin of the increasingly aghast Baum and ends with the latter, looking decidedly uncomfortable, as he grills an exotic dancer at a strip club. This eye opening conversation, where the woman openly admits to owning five separate houses that she can’t possibly afford, convinces him to get on board with Vennett.

McKay then introduces the third and final group of money chasing desperadoes, the two college friends, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock); entering the story in the lobby of an unnamed bank as they get a rather gentle and quite humorous rejection from an amused employee, whilst trying to arrange an ISDA, but failing to meet the requirements by the meagre sum of $1bn and spare change. The Brownfield fund they started is very much small time and they’re left cursing their luck until they discover the existence of the potential ‘bubble’ by picking up Vennett’s discarded dossier on the table before one of them turns to the camera, as the film quite often does, and explains that this didn’t actually happen in real life. With the two of them now on the scent like a randy, Blood Hound, they require the assistance of an old acquaintance to help get them a seat at the ‘big-boy’ table. Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is that man. Highly suspicious of his incoming calls being tapped, the pair initially struggle to get a hold of him, but after finally succeeding they manage to convince him to help out after he admits that the statistics they earlier sent him were concerning.

The film then juggles all three perspectives around as things begin to progress, with frustrations quickly manifesting themselves, as all of them, well technically not Burry because he got it out of his system early, begin to invest more into the shorting financial gamble, whilst in the meantime they face having to fork out on costly premiums attached to their investments, with the inevitable crash seemingly refusing to materialise. During this point the moral beacon and voice for the regular joe is very much Rickert, out of the game and with nothing to really gain himself, he berates the excitable Charlie and Jamie after they successfully trade on AA rated loans, reminding them of the human cost that a huge financial crash brings. It soon becomes evident that the entire system, built on a Jenga like ticking, time bomb of a foundation as Vennett eloquently visualises earlier, is highly fraudulent with unscrupulous deals being done to maintain AAA ratings on clear sub-prime mortgages. This has the double edged effect of infuriating the protagonists and fooling the top cat bankers into a false sense of security. Of course, with the clear benefit of hindsight, the viewer know fine well that entire thing imploded shortly afterwards, but neither the film nor the people directly benefitting from it gloat when it finally hits (except Baum who can’t resist nailing a banker who’s the complete antithesis of himself), choosing instead to focus on the innocent parties effected.

There’s some very good performances here in what is a pretty excellent ensemble cast. Christian Bale does exactly what you’d expect him to do, transforming into the almost unrecognisably awkward Michael Burry, a man that walks around bare footed, in shorts and a t-shirt, whilst locking himself in his office and listening to heavy metal. He perfectly encapsulates this with all the nervous, little quirks you’d expect in such a man. Normally known for his comedic roles, Steve Carrell delivers a smashing performance as the incongruous Mark Baum, a man riddled with guilt at his brothers untimely death and steadfastly determined to bring some moral equilibrium to a bent system. Ryan Gosling is decent too, adding some comedic flair to the film with his narration of the events and intermittent turns to the camera. Both John Magaro and Finn Wittrock put in solid portrayals too, whilst the strong supporting cast headed up by Brad Pitt, who makes a fleeting appearance, Marisa Tomei, Jeremy Strong and quite a few others really help make this what it is. The film also unusually turns to brief cameos from celebrities, most notably Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez, to explain the finer details of CDO’s and credit-default swaps. These don’t effect the pacing of the film or take you out of it in way.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Big Short and given the nature of the films subject matter, it was perhaps extremely important for McKay to get across the seriousness of it all whilst lightening the tone with comedic moments. It could’ve quite easily became a bore fest if he strayed in one direction too much, but I think he got the perfect blend between the two. I would have no problem recommending this film, if like me, you somehow managed to miss its original release.

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