The Big Short (2015)

13 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

So the housing bubble of the 2000s grew so big that it eventually (and inevitably) exploded in a major way. That would be funny if it wasn’t true. But as impossible it may seem, it really happened, leading to the 2008 global financial crisis. It was chronicled in Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book, “The Big Short,” which was written with the intention of making readers really want to know more about financing—credit-default swaps, collateral debt obligations, etc. I imagine it’d be a difficult challenge to put that same intention into a film adaptation, but not only is Adam McKay’s 2015 film of the same name informative about the situation(s) at hand; it’s also surprisingly funny and entertaining.

Many are surprised that Adam McKay, whose previous films include such dopey mainstream comedies as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” was able to handle this kind of material well. It wasn’t much of a surprise to me, because whether you like these movies or not, it’s difficult to deny that underneath all the goofiness is sheer craftsmanship and social commentary. For “The Big Short,” the comedic aspects are more in the “snarky” category than the “goofy” category (because most Wall Street people are jackasses, by popular opinion)—the serious, heavier material is still treated sincerely and the comedic edge eases it up and gives the film greater significance, causing it to stand out further. This also gave McKay an opportunity to stretch himself further as a talented filmmaker (which he’s already proven with the well-executed racetrack sequences in “Talladega Nights”); an opportunity he relishes in. He pulls out all the tricks to make this film stand out. He shoots it like a documentary; some shots are intentionally bad, to make the acting and writing stand out in a natural way. Characters often break the fourth wall to let us know what they’re thinking. And there are random show-stoppers, used for informative effect. For example, when the audience might be confused about mortgage-backed securities, suddenly, there’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain everything! (Though, I doubt most men in the audience are paying attention to what she’s saying, if you know what I mean.)

(Other celebrity appearances include celebrity chef Anthony Bordain using a fish stew equivalence and Selena Gomez playing poker with a doctor.)

The film focuses on five of the characters picked from the original source material. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a socially awkward genius with a glass eye and a tendency to work while barefoot and listening to rock music. He’s the first one to notice warning signs of the way Wall Street is overvaluing mortgage-backed bonds, three years before the crash, but no one will listen to him. However, he does see this as an investment opportunity by betting that the housing market will fall. Jackass investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) decides to do the same and runs it by Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a cynical broker, who reluctantly agrees. While all that’s going on, there are also a couple of amateur traders, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who are at the right place at the right time and take the opportunity as well. They get help from ex-broker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who decides to guide them through the madness they’re in for. How often do you see a film in which the heroes are betting over a billion dollars against the American economy, especially since if they’re right, it means very bad times for millions of people who are already in danger of losing their homes? What a tricky subject to focus on. Good thing it works.

And it’s funny. The breaking of the fourth wall leads to fulfilled comedic possibilities, the celebrity cameos are hilarious, the dialogue is sharp and witty, and the humor comes from just how smarmy these people can become. Comedy can help elevate a story like this, which can otherwise be an uninteresting drama or a passable thriller, but what also helps is accuracy, which as far as I can tell (being someone mostly ignorant of financing), it definitely has a large amount of. With sharp filmmaking, great acting (what else do you expect from Christian Bale?), a detailed script, effective hilarity, and a unique amount of precision, who would’ve thought a film about the 2008 global financial crisis would be this deep-cutting and this amusing both at the same time?

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