The Big Short

UK Release Date 22nd January 2016
Director Adam McKay
Starring Carrell, Gosling, Bale
Runtime 130 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 9th February

I kind of remember that moment in my life when I realised that, if not a grown-up, I was certainly heading that way. It was the moment I finally realised that my parents did not automatically know the answers to every question in the world. Some time later I realised how far wide of the mark I was. It wasn’t just my parents. Nobody knows anything. Worse, not only do they know nothing, they are also completely unprepared to learn from past disaster. Even worse than that, they are happy to continue making the same mistakes on the apparently entirely accurate assumption that somebody will bail them out and they can make money off it in the short term.

And so sets the tone for The Big Short, Adam McKay’s scorching fictionalised look at the corrupt zero-sum game that is investment banking. And I’m not just chucking the phrase ‘zero-sum game’ in there for the sake of looking clever, I do actually know what it means. In this instance, it means that in order for somebody to make all this money, some schmuck has to pay it. And that schmuck my dear reader, is you and me and a seemingly endless supply of lower income extras.

McKay’s movie focusses on the people inside and around the machine, who realised early that all was not well and, in the greatest tradition of white men throughout history, they took one look at the approaching storm and knuckled down to working out how best to make a bucket-load of money out of it. Our journey here takes in Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, a spray tanned, vain, Deutschebank operative who forms the nominal narrator for the movie. He relays the tale of his arrival at some information from Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hedge fund genius who, having crunched the numbers realises that the entire US housing market is about to implode and subsequently decides to bet his investors' money against an apparently bulletproof market. A completely erroneous phone call blows the scheme open to the arms-length Morgan Stanley team, headed up by Steve Carrell’s Mark Baum. And somewhere in all this, a couple of canny investment guys living in their mum’s garage weigh in and invest in the scheme too.

The main point is that all the above players take Burry’s spreadsheet work, dig into the actual real life stuff behind it and freeze with both terror and glee. On the one hand, if every one of them, having drawn the same conclusion from the information, is correct, then the entire financial system that they depend on for work is about to not only go to hell in a handcart, the road the handcart is travelling on is also going to be flung through Dante’s infamous gate, along with just about everything else that lines it. On the other hand, if only a handful of people know about this, betting on it will have schmucks (not the same schmucks as mentioned above, monied, greedy, suited schmucks) falling over themselves to take multi-million dollar bets off the group. Bets that will pay off in unprecedented fashion when the bell finally tolls.

Breathless isn’t it? Damn straight. And so is McKay’s joyously maniacal, frenzied movie. Remember, this is some dry shit right here. Remember the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (brilliantly played by Ben Stein)? Yeah, that kind of stuff. Economics. The dismal science. Not any more. Charles Randolph and Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book ‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine’ (the same author who bought us Moneyball) doesn’t stop for breath in its perfectly pitched two hours ten minute running time.

The talent in the cast is as endless as it is impressive. In addition to the above, we get Marisa Tomei (briefly, as with all the female roles), Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez…. The latter two hilariously playing themselves in some of the movie’s better fourth wall destroying cameos. The four main groups are the story’s sorry heart though and they all fulfil different fascinating elements of the trader psyche. Bale’s barefooted, heavy metal playing PhD is the obsessive, socially inept centre of the storm. Gifted to the point of being given free-reign with his investors' money, Burry’s gamble takes time to pay off but his absolute confidence in his numbers is only ever threatened by the corruption endemic in the system. Bale dons an incredibly realistic glass eye and some shocking hair and convinces absolutely in the role. 

Meanwhile, Gosling’s Vennett breezes in and out of focus, dropping various self-serving information directly to the camera. Smooth as you like but as three dimensional as the dollar bills he craves, Vennett’s drive for money is as simple as needing to climb out of the debt he has racked up in the lower ranks of Deutschebank. The two garage dwelling traders make for an entertaining double act as they scrape together money in a desperate bid to get up to ‘the big table’ but it’s really Carrell’s bereaved Baum that catches the interest.

Baum’s role or perceived role in the loss of his brother to suicide and consequently being perpetually angry towards the world and the desperation in needing it to prove him right isn’t enough in itself. The fact that it’s his team who are sent out into the depths of Florida to chase down the mortgages that form the building blocks for the Collateralised Debt Obligations make the thread particularly meaningful. McKay does well to dovetail these more sensitive sections into his frenetic movie. It’s an easily overlooked part of the financial corruption that manifested in 2008, we are often so focussed on the macroeconomic damage that the owners of the subprime mortgages that caused the collapse are overlooked as individuals. Carrell’s team are astonished to be greeted by a tenant up to date on their rent payments but living in a house in default on the mortgage. As they wander in the cloying oppressive Florida heat around the barely populated new build nightmare that is the estate, the full horror of the situation dawns on them very quickly. The only honest player in the entire movie glares at them from its new home in a derelict swimming pool before making a lunge for them.

As the money piles up against the banks, Burry is forced to lock his investors’ cash away from them in order to protect his position. He does this not because his gamble is incorrect but because he hadn’t fully taken into account the sheer level of complicity of all the financial institutions on maintaining the illusion that everything was working as it should. At the same time, Baum visits a ratings agency to ask why they are continuing to rate junk as triple-A bonds. The explanation floors even a character so utterly bereft of confidence in human beings. The agency simply cannot afford to give an answer the banks do not like for fear of giving business to their rivals. In a world where such massive things come down to that, we are truly all completely fucked.

The closing section of the movie rounds the group up as they all struggle to work out their best position to cash in and to fully comprehend the sheer scale of the devastation. They all stand to make millions but even the most selfish, shallow of them cannot properly process the full cost of the actions of the people, businesses and government agencies that made the profit possible.

In Brief:

McKay’s brilliant movie is at times searingly angry, hysterically funny, mortifying and never short of astonishing. I use the word ‘hysterically’ in the purest sense. The kind of hysteria you reach when every single institution surrounding you is equally and catastrophically corrupt and not one organisation is willing to deal with the incoming carnage. Paying scant regard to even the presence of a fourth wall, celebrity cameos are dropped in and wise words dispensed in typeface on the screen (standout amongst these: “The truth is like poetry. And everybody fucking hates poetry” - attributed to ‘overheard in a bar’). Packed with entertaining characters, dazzling stupidity and blessed with a superbly fatalistic attitude to the unfolding situation, it's difficult not to come out of the screening as elated as you are saddened.

Vennett closes the movie with a round up of all the lessons learned from the 2008 crash and a list of all the criminals who went to jail for the corruption that caused it. McKay is joker right to the bitter, bitter end.

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