The problem with awards season is that you can never be sure is something’s worth watching or not. There is so much nonsense written about everything that it’s impossible to tell what’s fact and what’s just bollocks. Look at Joy; it’s been lauded as one of the greatest films of the year but I was bored out of my fucking mind. Obviously, the praise was mostly down to J Law and her inability to put a foot wrong in the eyes of the people who matter. Another name that is constantly getting attention at this time of year is Christian Bale. Yes, everyone’s favourite Welsh psychopath is constantly being recognised for his acting prowess but I remain unconvinced that he deserves the attention. I mean he wasn’t even the stand-out in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and he was fucking Batman! Still, everything about his latest film The Big Short seems like it should be a no brainer. It has a great cast, a script co-written and directed by Adam McKay (Will Ferrell’s writing partner) and based on the real-life story of the people who made a fortune out of the 2008 financial crisis.
The Big Short is the story of the financial wizards who predicted that subprime mortgage bonds woud collapse and bet against them. It all starts with Michael Burry, the social awkward and eccentric hedge fund manager who runs the numbers and realises what’s going to happen, He decides to earn his client’s a whopping payout by betting against the loans. Of course, nobody believes Burry and every bank he approaches with his plan happily goes along thanks to their belief in the system.
Burry gets the attention of other financially minded people who start to figure out that he’s stumbled onto something big. Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and pessimistic hedge fun manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) join forces to put their own stake into the credit default swap game. Finally, two young investors who managed to make a large profit from their garage start-up decide they want to play with the big boys and, with the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), also become involved,
There is a lot of important information being tossed around during The Big Short and it refuses to assume an existing knowledge from its audience. McKay and co try to downplay the seriousness of financial dealings by bringing out celebrity cameos to explain key definitions. Margot Robbie appears in her bath to explain what subprime loans are. Part of me loved McKay’s approach to such a serious subject matter and it is, by far, the funniest film you’ll probably ever see about the market crash.
Then there’s the part of me that couldn’t help but feel it was a very smug and self-important production. Like McKay is making such a big point about downplaying this piece of recent history that it becomes too much. It’s a film that doesn’t know which side of the fence it falls on. There is the one hand that wants to embrace the sexy side of market trading and celebrating how intelligent and amazing people like Burry are. Then there is the socially correct stance of anti-banks, anti-big money. Is it a cutting condemnation of a flawed system or a darkly comic celebration of the rebellious outsiders of the financial world who just don’t give a fuck?
In terms of styling and approach I did like The Big Short but I think, in it’s attempt to make a very depressing subject fun, it spread itself a little too thin. It’s a huge disappointment. Especially when you bring together such an amazing cast and don’t give them anything really meaty to work with. There is nobody in this ensemble cast who excels. Christian Bale has started to take himself so seriously that every role he plays nowadays seems to be verging on parody; Steve Carell is just one note; and Ryan Gosling isn’t even trying. There was so much potential that just didn’t end up working its way into the final product.
The problem with The Big Short is that listening to the cast and crew talking about McKay’s desires for the movie is more inspiring than anything you watch during it. Listening to him discuss why and how he wanted to tell the story made me want to like it more but I just found it lacking. It relies on the belief that people hate big banks so much that they are willing to watch rich investors make a shit load of money off working people’s misfortunes and think it’s a win.
The film has a few moments where it tries to backtrack and show sympathy for the little people who are being affected by all of this double dealing but it just comes across as too little too late. You have a couple of moments where people seem to recognise that real people will get hurt by the bubble bursting and Brad Pitt’s character has a rather limp and incredibly redundant moral speech really near the end. This film is never more pathetic than the rare moments when it tries to remind you of the human cost of the big money deals going down.
When it comes down to it, McKay doesn’t find the masses of people who lost their homes and their money dramatically compelling enough here. The real turning point in the narrative is the moment when Burry is finally able to show people that he was right. That he saw something they didn’t. The real emotional crux of this movie is that the rich, misunderstood man finally becomes richer and more understood.