Review: The Big Short
By John Corrado
★★★½ (out of 4)
The Big Short opens with a quote from Mark Twain that perfectly encapsulates the grey zone occupied by its characters. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
This quote helps set the tone for a docudrama about the 2008 stock market crash and economic crisis that is by turns terrifying and entertaining, using sharp satire and one hell of a great cast to take the world of high finance to task.
The film recounts the true story of a band of financial outsiders who predicted the Wall Street crash, and hatched a scheme to get rich in the face of the looming recession, by betting against the supposedly solid housing market. Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the first one to see it coming, a socially awkward hedge fund manager who figures out that the entire market is built on a bubble of bad loans with increasingly lesser returns, and is destined to burst.
Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is an opportunistic young trader who gets wind of the predicted collapse, and sets out to make his own fortune. An accidental phone call leads him to rope in Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an idealistic hedge fund manager who sees this as an opportunity to screw over and make a statement to the big banks. This brings us to Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), a pair of aspiring entrepreneurs who enlist the help of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a disillusioned banker turned organic farmer, to help them also get in on the deal.
At first, Adam McKay might seem like a strange choice to direct such heavy material, having cut his teeth with beloved but off the wall comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. But The Big Short reveals that the filmmaker also has something genuine to say, and his screenplay, co-written by Charles Randolph, is an intelligent and sharply insightful piece of work. Their stroke of genius is that they present this story in the guise of comedy, and the film is sometimes very funny, but like most great humour, there is also profound truth behind every single one of the laughs.
This subject could have been dry in the wrong hands, but The Big Short makes it feel both engaging and pressing, zipping along at a wildly entertaining pace. The film uses fourth wall breaking moments and delightful celebrity cameos, like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez playing blackjack, to help explain complex financial terms like subprime mortgages and CDOs. Adam McKay directs this all with flair, using digital zooms, freeze frames, and highly stylized editing to add visual intrigue to the story, and give it the immediacy of documentary filmmaking. It’s also got a killer soundtrack.
The entire cast is at the top of their game, with Ryan Gosling acting as both our storyteller and narrative through line, striking the perfect balance between charming and slick. Steve Carell shines in one of his finest dramatic turns, and Christian Bale perfectly captures the small nuances and socially awkward touches of a character who is clearly on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. Brad Pitt is quietly excellent in his brief but memorable role, and even the bit players get their chances to shine, including Max Greenfield who is hilariously slimy in an extended scene.
Perched somewhere between the wild excesses of The Wolf of Wall Street, and the devastating drama of 99 Homes, The Big Short is a piece of smart and thought provoking entertainment, that offers a complete picture of what exactly led to the housing crash. This is a searing indictment of a system that runs the world, and gripping exposé of the greed that permeates every level, designed and destined to destroy those at the bottom and only benefit the ones at the very top. The film exposes the sociopathic greed of the banks, while also challenging our perception of heroes and villains, making us root for a group of men who are sticking it to the system, while still largely acting upon their own lust for money.
When the fallout of the economic crash is shown at the end, and the affects it had on real people, The Big Short reveals itself to be heartbreaking and positively gutting, leaving us infuriated that this was ever allowed to happen in the first place. This is a film that is sold as comedy, but actually has something real to say, while managing to be both blisteringly intelligent and entertaining as hell.