Does the expression ‘credit default swap’ leave you feeling puzzled? Could you define the term ‘sub-prime mortgage’? How about ‘collateralised debt obligations’ – or to give them their cosy nickname, CDOs?
More to the point, would you want to go and see a film in which these phrases, and many more like them, are liberally bandied about?
You probably think you wouldn’t, but the good news about The Big Short is that it makes full allowances for audience confusion.
A madcap comedy
It’s an account of the 2008 financial crash that pole-axed the United States (and consequently other countries); but it’s not some thoughtful, educational documentary. Instead it views the events that led to hundreds of thousands of Americans losing their jobs and homes in the style of a madcap comedy.
That seems an awkward mix, to which we’ll return later. For now, suffice it to say that most of the film’s main characters are based on real people who realised early on that the US economy was headed for a disastrous fall – or were persuaded to accept the fact before it happened.
They turn out to be a wildly improbable crew, some emotionally damaged, others socially awkward, all of them apparently without a moral scruple between them. And these are the film’s heroes.
Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an intense, eccentric character who behaves and dresses like a sullen teenager in T-shirt and flip-flops; he is devoid of social skills. Burry, who works for an investment firm, is an obsessive researcher, a ‘numbers guy’ who comes to believe that America’s housing market, long regarded as utterly sound, is on the verge of imploding. Burry decides to bet his firm’s money on financial catastrophe.
This is an astronomical gamble, and word leaks out. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), an opportunistic hustler at Deutsche Bank who narrates the story, thinks Burry has a point, and persuades Mark Baum (Steve Carell), who heads up a hedge fund, to join in. Baum, too, is quite a piece of work – impervious to the needs of others, and jaw-droppingly impolite. In a state of constant grief over his brother, who committed suicide, Baum also harbours a grudge against the greed and arrogance of the Wall Street establishment, and views Burry’s scheme as a means of bringing it down.
So does Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), once a financial whizz-kid who walked away from all that in disgust and now lives ‘naturally’ on a diet of food he grows himself. He learns of Burry’s scheme via two young entrepreneurs (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) who trade from their own garage and want him to help them get rich quick.
In fact, by the halfway mark, there’s a whole lot of characters in The Big Short who know of Burry’s radical theory and plan to cash in on it. Working out who’s who only adds to the confusion. Director and co-screenwriter Adam McKay’s solution to this problem is to make his film fast, brash and funny. He throws in any number of stylistic devices to keep the audience entertained.
Thus in his narration, Gosling’s Jared Vennett slyly comments on what’s going on rather than merely reporting it. Sometimes he turns away from a scene to face the camera and address the audience directly. (In the business, this is known as ‘breaking the fourth wall.’)
How Wall Street works
Vennett also tackles the audience’s confusion about how Wall Street works: “Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid?” The problem is solved by putting famous people on screen to explain the intricacies of high finance in simpler terms. These include Margot Robbie (the fetching blonde actress from The Wolf of Wall Street) spouting her easy-to-follow lecture while sipping champagne in a bubble bath, and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain declaring that a particular financial package is like presenting three-day-old fish soup as fresh.
This is amusing, certainly, though hardly ground-breaking: Woody Allen employed every one of these devices in Annie Hall almost 40 years ago. But McKay’s thinking seems clear enough – when faced with a story about criminal negligence and incompetence on the part of banks and lending institutions, one approach is to treat it as a madcap comedy rather than an earnest moral fable.
In fairness, it works. The Big Short is adapted from the book of the same name by the gifted Michael Lewis (who also authored the fascinating Moneyball), and has lifted his compelling, readable style, ratcheting it up a few notches into high comedy. Undeniably, The Big Short is an entertaining film. It runs for 130 minutes; the time flies by.
Still, it’s possible to have reservations about this approach – the main one being that not one of the main characters here is remotely sympathetic or likable. They’re all part of the same cynical financial game, whether they’re dissidents or not – and if their big hunch succeeds, they will become very rich (in some cases, even richer) while a huge number of ordinary people face ruin and destitution. Even while the end credits are rolling, that’s enough to wipe the smile off your face.