“Where the fuck did that come from?” Yeah. There’s a statement. One many of us thought or maybe even vocalised in 2007 when the world economy folded up like a deckchair as it became apparent that the banks had acted with such self-interest and short-sightedness that it seriously beggared belief. In hindsight why were we so surprised? The sheer incompetence meant that, quite frankly, the banks themselves were most likely the ones exclaiming it the loudest.
It’s a statement that rears itself again when considering The Big Short; a film fully in the game this awards season and with good reason too, only this time the focus is directed with no small amount of pleasant surprise at the film’s director Adam McKay, previously best known for the Anchorman films. Not someone ordinarily thought of as a heavyweight of dramatic filmmaking.
Now, I work in the finance industry in my day-to-day, and the prospect of a film that nudges over the two-hour mark stacked with complex insider lingo and rigorous accounting of deals, bonds, funds and investments hardly had me booking my cinema seat in advance, but McKay might just have been one of the best people to hand this one to. He takes a subject which is liable to induce exasperation and boredom and packages it in a way that allows the audience to process the information and, most importantly, have fun with it. As inappropriate as that sounds considering this little story saw the financial ruin of millions.
There is no lead in The Big Short. The story concerns varying groups in the run-up to the financial crisis who saw it coming and they don’t all necessarily intersect at any point. It’s an ensemble piece. So over here you have socially awkward, glass-eyed savant Michael Burry (Christian Bale), studying the numbers and sniffing out the creative arithmatic, but over here you have opportunistic self-servicing ass-hat Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) taking advantage of the situation for his own gains. And then over here you have entrepreneurial partners Charlie Gellar (John Magro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) hedging their bets to get a foothold in the market with a little help from former Wall Street man turned paranoid seed farmer Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
Starting to get a little busy? Well I’ve saved the best for last in the form of Mark Baum (Steve Carrell); a bullshit-sniffing blowhard aghast at the house of cards he finds himself surrounded by. Carrell is a bit of a revelation here, putting in a performance far more animated and heartfelt than the comatose vampirism of his turn last year in Foxcatcher. Bale does he best to steal the show honing the accentuated mannerisms of Burry, but Carrell’s Baum is easily the film’s most humanistic voice. McKay scratches the surface of a man wounded by personal tragedy, sketching in just enough amid everything else for you to almost wish the whole deal was centred around this one character.
If this all sounds a bit busy then that’s exactly right. The Big Short crams it all in like a film trying to one-up Syriana for dense insider politicking, and initially it seems as though McKay is trying a little too hard to make his big transition, opting for a distracting vérité style, littering it with pop culture stock footage, some smart-alec voice over (from Gosling) and a series of star name asides from the likes of Margot Robbie and Selina Gomez dumbing the information down for audience members struggling to keep up.
Except that’s not how it all plays. Somehow this scrappy collage of fragments works when bundled together, complimenting the central suggestion that the system has been brought down by broken communication and doublespeak. The celebrity intervals especially walk a tightrope, daring to condescend to the audience. But here’s the thing. This material is difficult. It does need a guide. You do need someone to explain to you what a CDO is. It’s a risky ingredient in McKay’s melting pot but it pays off (kudos to co-screenwriter Charles Randolph for helping him on the recipe).
And it’s both consistently fascinating and hugely entertaining. Yes, really. Unsurprisingly, McKay isn’t afraid to go for the funny, something that helps the picture greatly. Does it border on flippant? Arguably. But no more so than Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street. And it’s as much of a blast.
Like that movie, however, there is an important side to this story that the film conspicuously neglects to focus on. Though The Big Short is well aware of the potential fall-out, scant time is spent depicting the wider ramifications of economic collapse on America’s greater populous, save for a couple of token stock characters and a handful of briefly glimpsed still photos of men and women with their heads in their hands.
But then The Big Short has enough to contend with as it is, surpassing certainly my expectations for how energised a tale like this could possibly feel. It weaves and winds its way into all sorts of unlikely scenarios (one of which sees Brad Pitt making multi-million dollar transactions in an Exmouth pub I live approximately 10 miles from), coming out the other side like the financial sector’s darkly comic answer to Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop.
And then there’s Steve Carrell, anchoring the whole thing with a knitted brow, making it feel personal, making it feel human.
Granted, by the third act, when everything comes toppling down, there’s an uneasy sense that none of our disparate main characters are particularly altruistic. They’re all indirectly making their fortunes from the misfortune of others, recalling the prophetic tagline of one of those god awful Alien vs Predator movies; “whoever wins, we lose”. But then, McKay is going for a warts-and-all vibe here. And the warts-and-all truth is that these people made a lot of money seeing through the cracks.
Nevertheless, if you’re prepared to take on a lot of information and more than your average number of acronyms, The Big Short may prove to be one of early 2016’s most pleasant surprises, and it puts McKay in the enviable position of taking a seat at the big table. Who knows what he’ll tackle next? I wouldn’t bet against him.