Eight short years ago, the world found itself in the grip of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. What had started in the upper echelons of the banking industry swiftly seeped its way into normal everyday life; businesses folded in their thousands, homes and jobs were lost in their millions. It was a global crisis felt on personal levels, and this is perhaps why The Big Short feels so relevant from the outset. It plays (very well) as a comedy, which is unsurprising given director Adam McKay’s credentials, but brimming beneath the surface is a seething and damning indictment of the corruption of the financial world.
Put simply, it is the story of the select few who saw the impending collapse of the US housing market, bet against it, and made their fortunes in the process. Whilst ordinarily the temptation to despise characters who make money out of others’ misery would be all too inviting, so loathsome is the world by which they are surrounded that one cannot help but rejoice in their eventual victory at the expense of the banks.
It certainly helps that this unlikely group of chancers is portrayed by a brilliant (for the most part) ensemble cast. Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling are, of course, the most recognisable faces, but they are underpinned by impressive performances from the likes of Finn Witrock, John Magaro, Hamish Linklater and Rafe Spall. Gosling is, perhaps, the weak link in this star-studded chain. However, what his somewhat flat performance lacks is more than made up for by the superb Carell in his performance as hedge fund manager Mark Baum. He predictably gets the most laughs, but it is his handling of the film’s more sombre moments where he truly shines. There is one particular scene, in which a shocked Baum learns of the global nature of the crisis and realises what its repercussions will be, where he appears so horrified, so utterly defeated, that he almost seems to visibly age on screen. It is a genuinely brilliant performance – one that is perhaps easy to overlook because of its many comic moments – from an actor who continues to go from strength to strength.
To a degree, the film is preceded by Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), which also offered audiences a glimpse into the machinations of Wall Street. However, whereas Scorsese’s epic unabashedly revels in the nauseating greed of abhorrent bankers, The Big Short thankfully makes no attempt to hide its disgust and contempt. What is also remarkably refreshing about The Big Short is that it doesn’t disguise the complexity of its subject matter. It knows that collateralised debt obligations, tranches, and ISDAs aren’t part of the vocabularies of standard filmgoers, but it refuses to simply dumb down. Instead, it invites the audience into this confusing , jargon-filled world with on-screen explanations and fourth-wall-breaking celebrity cameos. This approach will certainly not be to everybody’s tastes, and it does perhaps teeter close to the edge of being too self-aware – but it is at the very least original, and demonstrates McKay’s determination both to engage with his audience and treat them with intelligence.
The Big Short is a very funny film; it has a witty script and a cast of actors who know exactly how to pitch it. In the screening I attended, the laughter from the audience may as well have been a part of the soundtrack. The film works particularly well, though, because it knows when not to be funny. It knows that it is dealing with a very serious subject matter, and it uses the comedy as a tool with which to draw audiences in before hitting them with humbling, grave realities. The final product is a film which is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining – a very worthy contender for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards.