Title: The Big Short
Director: Adam McKay
Major Players: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Out Of Five: Four
A comedy about the housing crash in the States? Hardly a laughing matter. But that’s what Adam McKay has made in The Big Short. An out-and-out comedy. Bitter, sarcastic and cynical, but a comedy nonetheless, with a real ensemble A list cast and a comforting handful of award nominations to go with it.
Based on true events, it follows four financial mavericks who realised that the banks and major financial institutions were ignoring the impending collapse of the housing market. So they took them on. And took them all the way to the cleaners.
The fascinating thing is that they did it as individuals, not a group, which gives the film a neat narrative device. For some time, their stories run in parallel until they eventually start to converge and they start working together. With one exception. Christian Bale’s Michael Burry, who’s the first to work it out. Probably on the autistic spectrum (although he only ever describes himself as socially awkward), with a false eye and a love for playing drums and loud heavy metal in his office, he’s brilliant at what he does and persuades all the big banks he approaches to come on board with his scheme. They think they’ve taken him for a ride. It’s the other way round.
I can’t admit that I understood much of the financial jargon. But director Adam McKay sussed that there would be plenty like me, so he inserts some highly entertaining sequences to explain it. They’re hosted by celebrities. Chef Antony Bourdain likens a particular type of bond to the fish he puts in a stew. Margot Robbie puts another financial package into plain English while relaxing in a hot bubble bath drinking champers. It’s a gloriously cheeky way of doing it – the Martin Lewis approach to high finance, if you like. In all honesty, in terms of understanding what’s going on, we could have done with few more sequences like that, but McKay has kept them to a handful and not fallen in to the trap of over-using them.
Although the four main characters operate almost independently of each other, they’re still an ensemble cast and a tremendous one. Brad Pitt downplays his role – he’s number four and we don’t meet him until half way through – underneath a straggly beard and scruffy hair. A slick haired Ryan Gosling likes to talk direct to the camera (he’s not the only one) and Steve Carell is permanently angry and never happier than when he is. The cause is a devastating event in his personal life.
If I’m going to single out any of the performances, it’s Bale, who apparently learnt heavy metal drums for the role and manages to create a character who’s an outsider yet miles ahead of everybody else around him. The first time we see him, he seems to be pouring out his soul to a colleague: it turns out he’s interviewing him for a job! Steve Carell, who’s not far behind him, combines comedy and straight acting to great effect with a character who is, despite constantly shouting at the world around him, is strangely likeable because he seems to be the only truly honest man around.
It may be around two hours long but with its zippy pace and sharp camera work, the film never feels like it for a moment. The story, even if you don’t necessarily understand all the intricacies, the humour and the characters, coupled with some snappy editing and a punchy soundtrack keep a strong hold on you. The sense of impending doom we’ve seen in other films on the same subject isn’t there – it would, incidentally, make a great double bill with 99 Homes – but we’re left in no doubt about the human consequences of what we see on the screen. When we see the final captions, it turns out that far less has changed that we might have hoped. We never learn, do we?
The Big Short is released in cinemas on Friday, 22 January and also reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 21 January.