Last week I remarked to a friend that despite it only being one week into 2016, I already had a frontrunner for my Movie of The Year in the masterfully brutal The Revenant. My exact words were “It would take one hell of a masterpiece of a movie to beat it”. Just a few days later, my prophetic words barely having dissipated, and I may have already found that “masterpiece” in Adam McKay’s The Big Short. Oh, 2016. I like you so much already. You can stay.
The 2007 US financial collapse is one of modern society’s greatest human tragedies. It was the initial falling domino that crashed global economies, leaving tens of millions – hell, nearly entire countries – jobless, homeless and hopeless. Nearly a decade later, its effects are still being felt in the pocket and the heart. It was a socio-economic disaster of unprecedented scale and calamity, but the real tragedy was that it was the result of nothing more than base human greed. It was also pretty confusing.
This obfuscation of legalese and grey-legalities is how the big banks duped nearly an entire generation into buying into their crazy, duplicitous plan – that and the grand lie that there was nothing as stable as the housing market. Only this market was actually a rickety, unsound construction, propped up on bald-faced untruths and financial parlour tricks which allowed the architects of this imminent disaster to get filthy rich, while the honest people living inside had no idea that their entire world was one loose brick away from crashing down on their heads.
One man knew though, and he decided to profit from it: Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a genius hedge fund manager who used pattern recognition and a whole lot of number reading – a LOT of numbers – to spot the cracks, nay gaping fissures in the system back in 2005. Unfortunately, he was also an eccentric loon, so nobody took him seriously. Least of all his company, whose money he used to purchase more than $1 billion in credit default swaps against the collapse of the US mortgage system – in essence he was placing a ridiculous bet with a series of banks that they were all going to lose their financial position, and if so, they would need to pay him an even more ridiculous sum of money as his winnings.
Never in the history of the world had this ever been done before, which is why it attracted the attention of hardcore Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). While his colleagues were pointing and laughing at Burry’s lunacy, thinking that this was the best deal they’ve ever made, Vennett saw opportunity. An opportunity, that through pure random happenstance – something as innocent as a wrong number call – saw him teaming up with a small hedge fund firm run by emotionally volatile manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell). And it’s Baum and his team – acerbic Porter Collins (Hamish Linklater), endlessly optimistic Danny Moses (Rafe Spall) and baseball bat wielding “enforcer” Vinny Daniel (Jeremy Strong) – who do the digging, uncovering this mind boggling conspiracy of insatiable greed and blind ineptitude that had led the USA to the edge of a chasm the likes of which it had never seen before, with nearly nobody being the wiser. So they too decided to profit from it.
Meanwhile, fledgling investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) also discover Burry’s plan completely by accident. With the help of an old friend and retired banker, the anti-establishment Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), the duo do their own research and shockingly realize the truth of it all. And naturally, decide to profit from it as well.
The script for The Big Short, co-written by director McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers) and Charles Randolph (The Life of David Gale, Love and Other Drugs) off Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book of the same name, flawlessly weaves together these three stories as these men uncover just how deep and deadly this chasm really is – and the insanely criminal lengths the perpetrators of this collapse will go to to protect themselves. The answers they find are skin-crawlingly horrific and almost unfathomable. It’s tragedy of colossal proportions. And somehow, through a masterstroke combination of directing, editing and acting, McKay and co makes it entertaining as all hell.
Gosling, as the narrator of this entire tale, is hilariously crude, eliciting endless guffaws with his sales-shark pitches. Bale is the ultimate socially awkward brain, turning in a brilliantly flawed performance – complete with a squint glass eye. Pitt, Magaro and Wittrock all give fantastically solid efforts. But it’s Carell who is the beating heart here. His Mark Baum is a whirlwind of curses and straight talk, but he is also the conscience of this piece: after all, if their play works, they will stand to make millions off the tragic loss of livelihood of millions of Americans.
And McKay doesn’t shy away from this sobering “win” and what it means for our “heroes” one bit. He plays against expectation and common sense and juxtaposes the grim and saddening reality of what is occurring with enlivening bursts of uproarious comedy, and somehow pulls off this seemingly impossible balancing act perfectly. He even makes all the frustratingly serpentine financial concepts – intentionally tongue-twisting jargon that even the financially astute characters in this piece struggle to wrap their heads around – perfectly understandable through the use of hilarious, fourth-wall breaking celebrity cameos (which I won’t spoil here).
And the combination of pitch perfect editing and music choices, crackling scripting, and effortlessly charming and sometimes raw performances across the board results in a wild rollercoaster of emotions across The Big Short‘s never-ever boring 130 minute running time.
The product of this is simply a must-see; even if it’s just for the way this movie cuts through all the big bank bullshit and lays bare the criminal truths at the heart of this social cataclysm that still continues to rock the world. And with its technically immaculate showings both in front of the camera and behind, The Big Short is astoundingly as topical, thought-provoking, educational and emotionally resonant as it is just plain entertaining. In short, like I said above: a masterpiece.
Last Updated: January 14, 2016