Based on the book by Michael Lewis ('The Blind Side'), The Big Short tells the story of bond and real estate derivative geeks who saw the housing crash of 2008 coming and bet against the collateralised debt obligation bubble, thus striking it rich.
Who would have guessed the most entertaining and scathing film about the Global Financial Crisis so far would come from a director best known for the Will Ferrell comedies Step Brothers and the Anchorman films? Anyone who stayed until the credits of his 2010 buddy cop comedy The Other Guys for one: that film ended with an out-of-nowhere rage-fuelled sequence laying bare the scams and Ponzi schemes behind the GFC that felt like a shout of outrage. Five years on, and this feels more like a despairing McKay realising that with the disaster already here. we might as well have some fun with it.
Based on Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, it focuses on the handful of money men (and they are all men) who in the months leading up to the GFC saw the disaster on the horizon. The first was Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the totally numbers-focused, heavy-metal blaring manager of an investment fund who actually bothers to go through the mortgages that underpin much of the banking sector’s wild growth and discovers the safest bet he can lay is that everything is doomed. His seemingly insane investments attract the attention of brash jerk banker (and the film’s occasional narrator), Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who brings in hedge fund manager and abrasive rage machine Mark Baum (Steve Carell).
"With the disaster already here. we might as well have some fun with it"
Providing a dose of decent human behaviour are small fry investors Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who lean hard on their now retired mentor (Brad Pitt) to get them the cash to play with the big boys. These groups’ separate investigations into what’s really going on take them as far afield as Florida, where even the strippers own multiple properties and entire suburbs are derelict, and Las Vegas, where the bankers don’t even bother to hide the depth of the rorts that are making them rich.
It takes guts to ask viewers to cheer on the financial collapse of Western Civilisation, especially when recent films like 99 Homes and the documentary Inside Job have taken a more straightforward (and disgusted) look at the GFC. But director McKay knows that destruction can be compelling if it’s done on a large enough scale, eschewing all but the most superficial character work here (only Baum gets any back story; many of the characters explain themselves direct to camera) to better cram in scene after scene where his gleefully bitter or wilfully nihilistic protagonists realise everything is doomed.
We get to share in their understanding too, with McKay occasionally bringing this whirlwind of a film to a screeching halt so celebrities – Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, Selena Gomez at a poker table – can explain exactly how various lethal financial devices were constructed. In this abstract world, the cast’s strong performances provide vital slivers of humanity; Bale is charmingly likeable as a man with zero social skills, Carell equally so as a cynic outraged that things are worse than he expected. Gosling is a highlight as a man who personifies sleaze; at least the others have the good taste to be briefly appalled by the carnage they’re profiting from.
Watch 'The Big Short'
Saturday 23 April, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies / NOTE: No catch-up at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Melissa Leo, Brad Pitt