Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt
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What are the odds that someone would make a piece of light entertainment about the US housing market crash? What are the odds that it would be a comedy? And what are the odds, even then, that it would be funny, accurate and nominated for multiple Oscars?
It’s the kind of thing only a madman would bet on. Fortunately, Adam McKay’s The Big Short is full of them. Top of the list is Michael Burry (Bale), a fund manager who calculates that the American economy is about to collapse. Soon, Mark Baum (Carrell), a bitter trader determined to prove Wall Street wrong at any cost, has caught wind of the same thing, thanks to a tip-off from smooth-talking Jared Vennett (Gosling). Add in a couple of rich-kid entrepreneurs, helped by a retired banker (Pitt), and you have a pack of people all gambling against the market.
Their logic? Banks have been loaning out mortgages to people who can’t afford them, which means that the bonds made up of them being flogged around are destined to crumble. Shorting them – betting against them – is not only a chance to get one up on the banks, but also to get rich.
Lost yet? That’s OK, because The Big Short isn’t afraid to explain the maths behind it. In fact, the film regularly pauses the action to spell it out for you like you’re an idiot monkey, roping in celebrity guests to spout increasingly ludicrous analogies. You might not know what a subprime mortgage is, the film decides, but you do understand the sight of Margot Robbie in a bathtub. It’s an inspired move, turning the movie’s explicit exposition into a joke itself; The Big Short is condescending, but it looks down on itself for it.
That smugness is part and parcel of the film’s carefully judged tone. It’s angry, but amusing. It’s dumb, but smart. Look back through Adam McKay’s CV and you’ll find The Other Guys, a silly buddy cop flick that ended with a stack of Wall Street stats – it’s not so surprising, then, that he’s returned to the same territory with equal rage. (Alongside The Wolf of Wall Street, 99 Homes and Margin Call, The Big Short marks a modern triple-bill of films all outraged at the property market’s fraud.) How intentional was the deception? McKay’s screenplay, co-written with Charles “Moneyball” Randolph, stuffs the screen full of stupid middlemen and women, who are only too happy to rack in the cash without question and pass the buck up the corrupt chain of power.
“Why are they confessing?” cries Carell’s crusader, after interviewing two hapless estate agents. “They’re not,” comes the reply. “They’re bragging.”
There’s a delightful skewering of that attitude towards money that defined the boom period before the bust, right down to the slicked hair and sharp suits. Between the set and costume design, it’s almost like watching a period piece, but one that’s still painfully modern. Suddenly, you can see why The Academy admired such a production.
The cast are all excellent at pretending they know what’s going on. Carell, despite his dodgy wig, provides the emotional heart the film needs, as he struggles to comprehend that money isn’t everything, but it’s Bale’s anti-social nerd who brings the believability; sitting at his computer, shut off from the world, it’s telling that he’s the one who spotted the problem, because he’s nothing like the money-men surrounding him. Gosling, meanwhile, blurs moral boundaries as much as he breaks the fourth wall, daring us to be charmed but reminding us that nobody in the story is a good guy (although it’s hard not to have a soft spot for the wonderful Rafe Spall as Nobu-loving trader Danny Moses).
The result is deliberately troublesome – a caper with no pay-off, a comedy with an unhappy punchline. Unemployment, unsold homes, austerity. Those aren’t laughing matters. So even when we see the little people win, it still feels like we’ve lost – an uncomfortable sensation that exactly sums up where the world is at. (From the UK to Dubai and Singapore, housing markets are still introducing mortgage caps to try and prevent another bubble bursting.) It’s not easy to pull that trick off, but McKay does it with confidence, treating his audience like simpletons just so they can grasp what happened almost 10 years ago. You’ll finish watching convinced you understand Wall Street – but more importantly, you’ll finish watching annoyed. Michael Moore meets South Park, The Big Short is patronising, awkward and uneven. And, against all the odds, that’s a good thing.
The Big Short is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.
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Photo: Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises