Saturday, 16 January 2016

Film Review: The Big Short

If there was one thing this Oscar season that didn't get me excited, it's was the prospect of watching a two hour movie about economic recession and number crunching. Thankfully, Adam McKay's The Big Short manages to take that exact topic and spin in into something entertaining and engaging.

Based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name, The Big Short is about the rapid decline of the housing market in the mid-00's that caused what we now know as the 2007/08 financial crisis. Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt headline as four outsiders who discover that the foundations upon which the economy is build is increasingly unstable.

Across years of high-risk trading and dealing, they work to secure their own future once the inevitable crash takes place, as well as to expose those who are responsible for its doomed future. Sounds thrilling, right?

Not really. You see, it's really hard to make concepts like credit bubbles and stock purchasing sound sexy, so I wouldn't blame you if that wordy synopsis caused your eyelids to droop. The Big Short deals with some heavy stuff when it comes to the economy, and I'm not going to sit here and pretend like I knew everything that was taking place. Terms like synthetic collateralized debt obligation, sub-prime loans and 'shorting' are thrown around like we, the audience, are all clued in on the everyday jargon of Wall Street finance. "Mortgage-backed securities; sub-prime loans, tranches; it's pretty confusing right?" Gosling's character explains near the start of the film. "Does it make you feel bored or stupid?"

It's safe to say that this isn't an easy film to follow unless you've got some kind of advanced degree in investment banking. I certainly don't and this means that the film has to work overtime to explain the intricacies of the plot in ways that make it simple and relatively easy to understand.

McKay tackles this issue head-on by using amusing throwaway scenes where celebrities (supposedly playing themselves) break the fourth wall and literally explain what certain terms and phrases mean as simply as they can. Amongst the stream of cameos are actresses like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez, the former of which is sat in a bubble bath luxuriously sipping champagne whilst hurriedly providing key exposition.  This cutaway technique gives you a good idea of the sort of tone that McKay is aiming for with this film; brash, kinda silly and uncompromisingly direct. The film essentially revolves around the idea that when a naked Margot Robbie is explaining something to you, you damn well listen.

Now this is a lecture on finance that I can get onboard with
The technique might seem juvenile on the surface, but it works really well; it fits with McKay's theme of satirising Wall Street and explaining in no uncertain terms how greedy, self-interested suits basically fucked us all over. It's a 'take no prisoners' approach that pays off in the long run; by laying it all on the table, the transition from eye-rolling frustration and snappy exposition to the morbid truth isn't such a stretch, so when it all goes to shit the audience is already clued in on who is responsible and the reasons why.

As I mentioned, the film is headlined by a quartet of big names; Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carell. And whilst each are great in their own way, it was Carell who proved to be the pick of the bunch. We may know him best as charming doofus Michael Scott from The Office, but here Carell shows range and emotion like we've never seen from him before. I daresay it's his best dramatic role to date, eclipsing what we saw in Foxcatcher last year mainly because his performance isn't obscured by prosthetics this time.

Whilst Bale gets to mooch around in boardies and Gosling gets to bat his eyelids at the camera (his character narrates the bulk of the story), it's Carell who gets most of the heavy lifting. Confronted by the sheer magnitude of the financial disaster that his team is slowly uncovering, Carell's performance is loaded with disbelief, terror, humour and everything in between. That's not to say the rest of the cast don't pull their weight (Bale gets his one or two Oscar reel moments), it's just that Carell caught my attention the most from the jam-packed A-list ensemble. It's a shame that his role has been sidelined in favour of Bale's by the Academy.

McKay's camerawork is a slight sticking point as well; in an attempt to mimic a fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking, McKay's direction feels jumpy or shaky. I don't mean like an episode of Modern Family complete with talking heads, I just mean in some instances it would've been better to have a firmer grip on the camera for the more weighty, dramatic moments.

Other than that, there is very little I can fault The Big Short on; it took a subject that I have very little knowledge or interest in and spun it into an entertaining, informative and terrifying film. And I mean that in a good way; the parting shot that McKay leaves us with is powerful and affecting, even though the film itself treats the subject matter with a certain cynicism. It's certainly not perfect, but the film does push through the inherent messiness with the narrative to create something really powerful. That alone makes it worth checking out.

The Verdict: 7.5/10 

The Big Short is a strange specimen that somehow takes something inherently complex and moulds it into a coherent narrative filled with excellent performances and a wry sense of humour. The direction is a little haphazard but stellar acting from Carell and some smaller names (Rafe Spall, John Magaro) keep the film on track through to the end.

The Big Short is in cinemas across Australia now.


  1. Great review! You're absolutely right about this film taking an uninteresting subject and making it into a good movie. That's how I felt too. I hated learning about economics in college, this made it easier. lol

    1. Cheers! It was certainly a lot more interesting than it could've been, I just wasn't totally sold on some of the characters or performances. McKay's direction was a little iffy as well. Thanks for commenting!

  2. To me, this is a very interesting subject! (I do have a degree in finance)

    And, the film was amazing! Genius direction by McKay. Glad you enjoyed!

    1. Thanks Tanner! I wasn't so sold on the direction but I'm glad you loved the movie!



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