IT SEEMS CURIOUS THAT there are not more films concerning the events leading up to the financial crash of ’07, given that it was, well, one of the most cataclysmic events of modern history. But then, does economics ever make good cinema? That’s where the The Big Short comes in.
Anchorman director Adam McKay’s film, which is based on the hugely successful Michael Lewis book of the same name, concerns the build-up of the housing bubble in the United States during the 2000s and the people who predicted it (and made a fortune doing so.) Not, you might think, a likely source of comedy, and yet The Big Short is funny almost all the way through, thanks to an excellent script and an ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carrell. What is refreshing about the film’s subjects is that they are not the Jordan-Belfort, Gordon-Gekko, Master-of-the-Universe-types, but slightly odd mathematical whizzes and assorted brainiacs, all with their own lengthy list of peculiarities. Even Ryan Gosling’s slick, confident Jared Vennett is no Wall Street walk-on, but a vaguely ridiculous figure: in one exchange at a securities conference he boasts to Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) that “I’ve already been to the gym, I had two poached eggs, and I played Blackjack with Harry Dean Stanton,” to which Baum deadpans, “Thank you for your diary.” The few on-screen characters who are fully aware of the immorality of their actions, notably the two mortgage brokers who boast of giving “NINJA (no income, no job) loans” to desperate wannabe homeowners are slimy and crass, which disgusts Baum and his colleagues.
A review I read of The Big Short shortly after its release argued that the film “squeezes comedy from tragedy”, which is true enough, but simplistic. The Big Short is such a strange mélange of genres it is quite difficult to define. It is certainly part-comedy, part-tragedy, but a large part of the film––the investigation of Mark Baum and his colleagues into whether The Bubble exists, for instance––is reminiscent of a police procedural. What’s more, the impending crash of the housing market and subsequent economic crisis looms over the horizon with as much menace as any Cloverfield-style monster, and when the market does collapse, the comedy vanishes. But The Big Short is a morality tale, too, the principal medium for which is Baum but also the t-shirt-and-shorts-wearing Dr. Michael Burry (Bale). The effect of the crash and the role of the characters in it is made clear in the actions of the characters in the wake of the economic crisis, which is displayed on screen at the end of the film. And then there’s the reveal at the end of the film that the banks were greedy because they knew that the government would bail them out. This is, to the characters and, I suspect, some of the audience, a thriller-level twist.
Though the film is nominally about the events leading up to the bursting of the housing bubble, it is equally––if not more––about the characters who displayed extraordinary intellectual confidence to go against the prevailing industry view and bet against the market, eventually taking home hundreds of millions of dollars in profit as the financial sector collapsed around them. The film makes excellent work of conveying just how impossible it seemed to financial experts that the housing market would collapse. When Burry does the rounds of the banks in an effort to buy insurance on sub-prime mortgage bonds, they cannot believe their luck. Later, when he tells investors that he has suspended their ability to withdraw their money, he is flooded with phone calls and emails, one of which reads, “I’m suing”. The audience may find it hard to have any sympathy for The Big Short‘s protagonists, who employed their financial know-how to make eye-watering sums of money for themselves but, with the exception of investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), not to warn the government or the public that they were about to lose all their savings (if they did indeed do this, it is not shown in the film). However it stills bears noting that they risked an awful lot themselves and angered a great deal of people counting on them during their endeavour.
The film slows for periods, notably during the scenes involving Cornwall Capital investors Geller and Shipley, who team up with retired investor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to try and get their hands on a slice of the credit default swap pie. That said, Rickert is incredibly funny in his eccentricity, and slams home a major moral point when he expresses his disgust at Geller and Shipley’s wild celebrations at the impending economic collapse: for every 1% rise in unemployment, Rickert says, 40,000 lives are lost.
The film is notable for the unconventional technique of using celebrities (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and others) and a fourth-wall-breaking Ryan Gosling to explain financial instruments to the audience, but one that, despite being very funny, works only some of the time. Even for those who easily grasp these concepts their interconnectivity in the context of the wider financial industry and the economic crisis might leave viewers scratching their heads. It’s for this reason that The Big Short makes a good follow-up film to Charles H. Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, which explains the relationship between collateralised debt obligations, credit default swaps and other financial instruments highly effectively.
The Big Short is a smart and fun film let down only by a handful of sluggish scenes and its failure to articulate more clearly the financial concepts which are integral to its full enjoying. Most of all it’s an excellent character-driven story about the people who dared to go against the grain and take a wild risk, knowing that to win was for everyone else to lose.