Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis, The Big Short tells the story of the collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2007 through the eyes of the real people who predicted its onset. The lingo of the sector is ably explained and dumbed-down; you’ll leave the cinema with a functional knowledge of bonds, sub-primes, and CDO’s, thanks to self-aware explanatory segments featuring celebrity cameos and easy analogies.
Steve Carell continues his recent trend of impressive dramatic turns, offering a relatively sympathetic voice to Mark Baum, a Wall Street man with a strong nose for foul play. Christian Bale also shines in a ‘social misfit’ role, bringing a convincing awkwardness to the eccentricities of Michael Burry. Ryan Gosling is amusing and different as Jared Vennett, an amoral money-hound. His comments to the camera are strongly reminiscent of a devilish Jordan Belfort. An underused Brad Pitt puts in a restrained, naturalistic performance as perhaps the most moral character, an ex-banker with apocalyptic sensibilities.
As the events of the film unspool, the effect is one of culmination. With every passing scene, the banking sectors’ wilful blindness grows more baffling. At every corner these men who we are told were correct all along, are met with disinterest and dismissiveness. When we are reminded of the real cost of the market collapse, the almost ubiquitous callousness of Wall Street snaps sharply into focus; one scene in particular involving an innocent father, positioned to be one of the early victims of the crash, reminds the viewer of the amoral nature of all of the central characters. They are profiteers, getting rich off the back of a ruinous global event. We root for them only insofar as they are smarter than the system, not really any more moral.
The Big Short is, as some articles have rightly pointed out, incredibly white, and incredibly male. Particularly frustrating in this regard is the presence of great female talent within the cast – notably Marisa Tomei and Melissa Leo – who are marginalised and criminally underused. The casting is in some sense anchored to the white, depressingly mono-cultural state of Wall Street bankers, but this particular stringency in light of the sacrifice of other accuracies will understandably leave the door open for criticism over the film’s diversity.
You would be forgiven for overlooking the fact that The Big Short is a comedy. McKay cut his teeth doing far broader fare, his better-known output including the Will Ferrell vehicles Anchorman and Stepbrothers, but little in that vein of wackiness can be seen here. At its best, the film sweeps you along and holds your attention through unusually heavy content, but it don’t come expecting big laughs. Much of the comic energy of the film stems simply from the absurdity of the situation and the ignorance of the masses in the face of disaster.
Ultimately, the film falls short of greatness simply because of a dearth of plot. The characters, while interesting in their mannerisms, are not in and of themselves enough to carry the film. With the ending of the film having forgone a conclusion, it is impressive that The Big Short manages to sustain interest for as long it does, but the sheer lack of narrative surprise or development eventually takes its toll. Having emerged as a surprise Oscar frontrunner following a successful haul at the Producers’ Guild Awards, The Big Short may yet bag a surprise win. Despite its star power, however, and despite being a genuinely admirable attempt to make a commercial film about substantial and topical issues, the hollowness of the film seriously limits its endurance. It is an enjoyable and surprisingly informative romp, but not one I can see myself returning to.