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Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Big Short

(M) ★★★★

Director: Adam McKay.

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Brad Pitt.

"Why is your hair so weird?"
"Why is your hair so weird?"
THE Global Financial Crisis was a mess – a catastrophic economic meltdown that left millions homeless and jobless across the US and rippled across the world sending entire nations to the wall.

Fittingly, the movie about how that all came to pass is also a mess, albeit a vivid, fast-paced and enjoyable one.

The Big Short is based on Michael Lewis’ novel detailing some of the people who profited from the US housing market bubble bursting (and triggering the GFC) by basically betting that such a thing would happen.

These were the clever cookies who could see the market was built on bad mortgages and fraudulent foundations and destined to collapse, despite everyone in Wall Street working on the assumption the market was too big to fail.


On paper, the story has limited appeal, as most people’s eyes tend to glaze over when they hear terms such as “subprime loans”, “credit default swaps”, and “collateralised debt obligations” – terms The Big Short is teeming with.

But director/co-writer McKay is all too aware of this and makes every effort to jazz up the subject matter wherever possible. Hence we have Margot Robbie in a bathtub drinking champagne as she explains subprime loans to camera, or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table demonstrating how synthetic CDOs work.

McKay throws everything at the screen – hence the mess analogy. The fourth wall is broken repeatedly, while stock footage-style montages pop-up in between quotes from Mark Twain and Haruki Murakami, onscreen diagrams, abrupt edits and a blend of documentary and filmic shooting techniques.

It could come off as desperation or style over substance, but Gosling’s narrator willingly tells us early on that this is boring subject matter that needs to be dressed up. The film runs with the gag, lightening the tone and making its dry topic palatable, no doubt leading to its Oscar win for best adapted screenplay. In some ways, The Big Short is like a flashier version of another Lewis adaptation Moneyball, which made another dull matter – baseball statistics – surprisingly interesting.

The script is accentuated by a couple of key players. Bale is great as real-life neurologist-turned-hedge fund manager Michael Burry, making the character’s eccentricities seem normal and resisting the urge to go full Rain Man.

But even better is Carell, who manages to make the unlikeable Mark Baum (based on real life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman) something close to likeable. It’s another well-rounded dramatic turn from Carell to go with his roles in Foxcatcher and Little Miss Sunshine.

There are good laughs to be had, mostly coming from Baum and his team of financial pessimists, and an oddly emotional moment that stands out because it’s the only one of its kind in the film.

This is the part of The Big Short that is somewhat lacking. While Carell’s Baum gives the film a surprising heart towards the end, it’s a bit “too little, too late”. It’s narrow focus also misses the wider ramifications of the GFC, although there is a nice moment when Brad Pitt’s character points out what has to happen to millions of lives for the main players to make their billions of dollars betting against the banks. A bit more heart might have gone a long way in this very cynical tale.

And, as mentioned, the film is a stylistic mess. As such, sometimes it goes too far, other times it doesn’t go far enough. Thankfully, for the most part it works, but it rides a tightrope a lot of the time.

If nothing else, this film now means McKay AKA the director of Anchorman and Step Brothers has an Oscar to his name. No one saw that coming.

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