Wednesday, 27 January 2016
Review: The Big Short (UK Cert 15)
Based on a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis and co-written and directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman), The Big Short tells the story of some of the people who saw the impending collapse of the American housing market in 2008 (which subsequently plunged the world economy into difficulties). These include Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund manager whose head for numbers first discovered the shady dealings which would eventually lead to the housing collapse; amoral trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who found Burry's proposal and decided to make a killing on it; perpetually angry hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team who get introduced to the deal by Vennett via a wrong number call, and a pair of wet-behind-the-ears investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who are mentored by a retired banker, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
Performances are generally good. Bale gives a quirky, if slightly mannered, performance as Burry, the mastermind behind the 'short' (essentially betting against the banks). Gosling is assured and strangely likeable as the self-interested, slick Vennett. Carell's performance is maybe the strongest as Baum, angry at the venal self-serving arrogance of the banks and their practices.There are two great supporting turns by Melissa Leo as a ratings agency employee who calls Baum out on his hypocrisy and Marisa Tomei as Baum's wife who helps him through a personal tragedy.
There's a lot I didn't like about the film and most of it is stylistic. I didn't like the breaking of the fourth wall constantly (which I felt detracted from the flow of the story). There are a couple of celebrity cameos to explain some of the more technical points or jargon of the finance world, although they feel shoehorned in and- in the case of Margot Robbie in a bubble bath- slightly exploitative. There's also one of the most blatant pieces of sexposition (ie. setting an important piece of dialogue in a sexual context) when Baum and his team visit a bunch of strippers to explain that things are about to go tits up (excuse the pun). A tighter script could have easily explained these points without resorting to a Family Guy style cutaway.
There are flickers of social commentary and the impact that the banks' recklessness would have. An investigation of an unoccupied housing estate in Florida, where people fled as soon as the eviction notices came in, and a conversation with a tenant who was about to lose his home and not even know it is powerful. Brad Pitt gets a slightly heavy-handed speech about the fact that, if his traders are right and cash in on the collapse, it's at the expense of people's jobs, homes and pensions. The final voiceover by Vennett explaining what actually happened- the bailouts, the bankers avoiding jail (only one banker faced jail time)- and some end-text which explains that the banks are starting to pull the same shit under a different name leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Having watched the film over the weekend, I'm still at a bit of a loss to describe my reaction to it. It's being marketed as a comedy but I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times I actually laughed; it's also a biographical drama but it's a bit too slick and flashy. I'm also quite struggling to get the point of it all as well. The American economy went to hell in a handbasket in 2008 and caused ripples that are still being felt in the world today. We know this; we've lived it. The shady dealings of the banks and their monumental arrogance that they either a) wouldn't get found out or b) refused to acknowledge that the entire business was built on shoddy foundations is well documented.
The film doesn't have the satirical bite of something like The Wolf Of Wall Street and it doesn't get sufficiently angry about the various injustices that the crisis unearthed. A bit of a disappointment.
Rating: 3 out of 5