The Big Short (2015)

(Video on Demand, April 2016) Hollywood is known for dumbing down everything, but the positive spin on dumbing-down is “vulgarize”, and The Big Short does it exceptionally well. Explaining the financial crisis of 2007–2008 through the perspective of traders who bet on the collapse of the US housing bubble before everyone else, this is a film that sets out to explain an exceptionally complicated topic to broad audiences, using every means at its disposal. Other than a clever script that creates dramatic tension out of real events, this includes frequent asides to the camera, sardonic narration and nakedly didactic celebrity appearances. (“And now to explain mortgage bonds, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.”) The result is nothing short of astonishing: The Big Short lays out its explanations clearly, entertainingly and doesn’t make many mistakes along the way. Even readers of Michael Lewis’s original book will be impressed at the amount of detail that writer/director Adam McKay manages to include in slightly more than two hours. For McKay, The Big Short is an impressive step forward that builds upon his work on The Other Guys’ end credits sequence to deliver a film that is outrageous and infuriating in the best sense of the words, while remaining a far funnier film than either Anchorman movies. (The helps that the film has a sly sense of stealth humour, from playing “Crazy” in the background of an insane explanation, showing how regulators jump in bed with banks, or how an assessor wears blindness-inducing glasses—removing them just in time to deliver some harsh truths.) This being said, the laughs in The Big Short aren’t from jokes as much as they’re from sheer bewilderment, that so-called smart people would be so astonishingly stupid. Or short-sighted, or greedy: As befits a complex catastrophe, the motivations in The Big Short are as complicated as synthetic CDOs. Even the protagonists aren’t too sure what to feel when they win by betting against logic, tradition and the respectability of the American economy. Steve Carrell (as the outraged moral centre of the film) and Christian Bale both impress in roles that deviate a bit from their screen persona (to the extent that Bale has a screen persona, that is), with able supporting performances by Ryan Gosling and a barely recognizable Brad Pitt. It’s not a stretch to claim The Big Short as a public service—the limpid way it manages to explain the madness of an entire system is populist rage fit to justify mass entertainment as the modern jester. While not every trick it attempts works (McKay’s direction seems too deliberately off at times), it’s a fine, even impressive piece of cinema, as much for its ambitions than for how it achieves them. It makes a more than fitting companion to films such as Margin Call and Inside Job.

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