How do you digest something like the financial crisis that crippled stock markets and banks and left countless people homeless worldwide in 2008? Something that is so vast and devastating, the repercussions of which we’re still feeling to this day, is hard to encapsulate in one film. Not only is it a devastating event, it’s also an exceptionally difficult event to fully comprehend. Well, thanks to Anchorman director, Adam McKay, we’ve been delivered one of the most timely films about this saga with The Big Short.
Headed by comedy wunderkind Steve Carrell as frustrated Mark Baum – coming off his searing Oscar nominated performance in Foxcatcher – The Big Short also stars Oscar-darling Christian Bale as the wise Dr Michael Burry, and Ryan Gosling as the opportunistic Jared Vennett. Together, they form a veritable ‘the sky is falling – Chicken Little’ trio when Burry realises that the financial system that has been set up with humble Americans mortgages is soon bound to fail and collapse. Throw in a bunch of three letter acronym’s that are used to name and describe each different thing feels like every ticket should come with a glossary to keep up with what’s being talked about. However, what sounds exceptionally confusing and obtuse, is thankfully easy to grasp what is being talked about. This is mostly thanks to some of the most biting comedy exhibited in a film in a long while.
Where a (great) film like The Wolf of Wall Street gladly glossed over these financial terms, The Big Short aims to make this tragedy easy to understand and easy to digest. Given the massive scope of the financial crisis, it’s easy to go down the maudlin path that films like 99 Homes went down. It’s refreshing then that The Big Short exists. Adam McKay has never been better here and with the comedic skills he has honed with Anchorman and Step Brothers, he’s delivered one of the most entertaining and timely films about a recent event. Fortunately, this never strays into the territory of being a satire (not that there’s anything wrong with satires, it’s just that that particular genre is an easy path to take when dealing with ‘serious’ issues), instead relying wholly on the comedic talents of the actors alongside the biting script (co-written by McKay and Charles Randolph, based on a book by Michael Lewis).
That’s not to say that this is a laugh-a-minute forget-it-as-soon-as-the-credits-roll sort of film – quite the opposite in fact. McKay manages to use the comedy to ease the viewer into accepting these events – and in fact, even manages to get the viewer on side with the characters who want to profit off this event – only to give them a sucker punch of an ending. It’s no spoiler to say what happened after this event occurred, but McKay’s superb presentation of this series of events slams the hypocrisy of the whole event home in ways that haven’t been presented in film before. The use of comedy and drama is a path that’s difficult to navigate, but McKay handles it perfectly here with some of the best fully realised characters in a film of recent time.
Steve Carrell’s Mark Baum is a man who has suffered a tragedy and finds himself struggling with the world he exists in – yet, at the same time, that struggle is what keeps him going. He is the films moral compass, his actions never straying too far from being digestible. Carrell once again shows that he’s an ever evolving actor who will no doubt continue to deliver great performances down the line.
Alongside Carrell is Christian Bale’s one eyed doctor Michael Burry. As the man who sees the iceberg coming while everyone else sits on the sundeck drinking mojito’s, Bale’s Burry is the south to Mark Baum’s North on that moral compass. He tries to explain to everyone the incoming doom, and instead is laughed off, so he decides to turn this doom into a financial boon for his clients. It’s thanks to the never better performance from Bale that Burry is a sympathetic character. The show don’t tell aspect of filmmaking is perfectly realised here as we see (and are also told about) Burry being a person who finds social interaction difficult. His sole interactions with his wife and son occur through text messages, or photo’s on his office desk, or through disembodied voices from other rooms. He listens to heavy metal music as he sits in his office, not interacting with anyone.
It’s with Burry’s character that The Big Short works on many levels. It’s not only an essay of the financial crisis, it’s also an essay on the idea of celebrity, or on another reading, a scathing look at the disconnected lives we all lead through the digital world we live in. It’s a look at the world of greed and excess. It’s a masterwork that a film so vast works on so many different levels.
I haven’t even touched on the fourth wall breaking moments and the use of real life celebrities to explain the intricacies of the financial system, and while these elements may put some viewers off, I feel they’re essential to help create what is a very unique take on this story. Take those elements out and The Big Short could conceivably turn into a run of the mill ‘crisis breakdown’ film. In fact, it’s because of these elements that one can watch The Big Short and not even consider this film being made by anybody else – it’s a perfect blend of director, talent, script and story. Even the handheld cinematography works perfectly here – where it was shoehorned into the mostly good Suffragette, it feels essential and timely within The Big Short.
The other aspect that works so well with The Big Short is that it knows that it wants to tell this story as entertainingly as possible. Because of this, it is happy to present some of the ‘true’ facts in a fictional manner. Often films that are ‘based on a true story’ will embellish elements of the story to create a more theatrical and dramatic feel for the film, often shoehorning in plot devices that may simply not have existed (take Hugo Glass’ son in The Revenant for example). Here, The Big Short uses those fourth wall breaking moments to have characters say to the audience, ‘look, this isn’t exactly how it happened, but it’s how we’re presenting it here because it looks better this way’. This could be something that would break the film, but again, McKay’s confidence with the material shows that he’s comfortable with taking these risks.
It’s not often that a film captures an era so perfectly, but Adam McKay has managed to do just that with The Big Short. To say it’s essential feels like it’s not enough – this is a film that is for the ages, that will stay with you long after the credits roll.
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt
Written By: Adam McKay & Charles Randolph