The Big Short Review

Posted: January 16, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

PrintWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

The 2008 financial crash is one of the most significant events of the 2000s and has had a profound effect on the world. Given how fundamentally the lives of millions of people were changed, you would think that we would have more significant cinematic representations of the event. We’ve certainly seen films dealing with Wall Street greed, notably Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, but most of the films to actually deal with the crash directly have been smaller and less seen efforts like Margin Call. That’s not to say there hasn’t been great films made about the crash. The 2010 documentary Inside Job is an excellent film which explores how the crash occurred and its consequences very well, but that too has been underseen by the general public. The Big Short is the newest cinematic effort to educate people on what exactly happened and its coming from the unlikely source of Adam McKay. Previously, McKay had only directed broad comedies with Will Ferell like Anchorman and Step Brothers and while The Big Short is also a comedy, the film is clearly a different turn for McKay.

The film begins in 2005 with hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovering that the housing market is unstable and due to collapse due to subprime loans. Realizing he can profit on the situation by essentially betting against the housing market, Burry begins to buy millions of dollars’ worth in credit default swaps which will pay out big time if the market actually crashes. A trader named Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears of Burry’s actions and realizes he too can capitalize on the situation. He seeks out hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and convinces him to invest in buying credit default swaps and betting against the bank as well. Finally, young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Witrock) also decide to profit off of the coming crash and enlist the help of retired trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt). The film jumps between all of these men as events move closer and closer to the eventual financial crash.

The Big Short is basically a mix of Inside Job and The Wolf of Wall Street. Like the former, the film wishes to be an informative one that explains how the financial crash came to be while simultaneously depicting the excess of the latter. Additionally, McKay also borrows stylistic elements from Scorsese, notably rapid editing, fourth wall breaking, cutaways, and big performances. Unfortunately, the combination here doesn’t really work fully. While the film does seem pretty knowledgeable, but information is sometimes drowned out by the film’s own comedy and style. Even more frustrating is McKay’s use of celebrity cameos like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to convey information. Basically, in scenes where a specific or complicated financial concept is introduced, the film basically says they know finance stuff is boring so here’s some celebrity to explain it. Not only does this stop the pace of the film, but these scenes are incredibly condescending. The explanations given could have easily been rewritten and incorporated into actual conversations between the characters which would have been much more natural and informative.

The film is slightly more effective at being a Wolf of Wall Street-esque comedy. I can’t say I found the film all that funny, but there’s definitely a comedic energy to the whole thing that really carries it through. I also really enjoyed the film’s soundtrack, which is a nice eclectic mix (that also features some awesome metal music) and the cast here is pretty fun. Ryan Gosling is probably the highlight as an arrogant and smug trader. He’s well-cast and is probably the most consistently funny element of the film. However the film does suffer from Adam McKay’s inexperience in making these types of films. Like Scorsese, McKay makes use of a lot of quick cuts but while he’s able to match the rapidness of Scorsese, he isn’t able to match the mastery. In a film like The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese may use a lot of rapid editing that might seem disorienting at first, but one always feels they’re in the hands of a master who knows what he is doing. One doesn’t have that same confidence in McKay, who employs these tactics with confidence, but the use is a lot more random. Additionally, the film’s visual style seems contrary to McKay’s direction. The performances and dialogue are all very big and broad, yet the cinematography has an almost documentary style with zooms and a slight shakiness. Finally, while the film does have a quick past, I don’t think it’s really able to keep up its energy. This is largely due to the Brad Pitt storyline, which is pretty inconsequential outside of one scene.

I’ve spent a lot of time unfavourably comparing The Big Short to other films which do similar things better (in large part because the film invites these comparisons), but I feel I should step back and acknowledge what the film does well. The film does in fact present an interesting perspective in that the characters are sort of outsiders in the financial world, yet they also see the impending financial crash as an opportunity to make a personal profit. The film’s best moments are the ones that deal directly with this concept, such as a scene where Brad Pitt chastises his colleagues for being so gleeful about their financial success in spite of the fact that it’s being made on the misery of others. Similarly, the Steve Carell storyline eventually becomes something of a meditation on this dilemma. On that note, Carell gives a pretty effective performance here. Early on I thought he was a bit over the top, but I was eventually won over and his arc is rewarding.

Overall, I can’t say I’m as enamoured with The Big Short as most of the critical community seems to be. It’s a film which is often condescending and is frequently undermined by directorial choices. The film also suffers from being very comparable yet woefully inferior to the great films Inside Job and The Wolf of Wall Street. I probably seem like a bully continually going back to those comparisons, but they are extremely apt ones. Having said that though, I do admire the film’s efforts to tell this story and I also empathize with the film’s point of view. The story of the financial crash is an inherently interesting one and The Big Short is able to capture some compelling material, even if the film as a whole doesn’t work fully.

B-

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