Banks, loans, mortgages and billions of dollars… You’ll be forgiven for scratching your heads throughout Anchorman helmer Adam McKay’s dramatic directorial debut, The Big Short. An adaptation of Michael Lewis’ (Moneyball, The Blind Side) book of the same name, this ‘based on real events’ Oscar nominated movie focuses on the housing market collapse of the mid-2000’s which sent the world’s economy into chaos.
Starring a bunch of bad wigs and Brad Pitt, three separate investment groups have spotted something interesting: the US housing market is built on a bubble and when that bursts – and it will – shit is going to hit the fan. Stupidity, greed, or fraud? Maybe one, possibly all, yet as these investors dig deeper into this financial ticking time bomb their morals are put to the test.
The first to pick up on the idea is Christian Bale’s Michael Burry, an awkward, one-eyed, shoe hating hedge fund manager who the banks think are crazy. After Jordan Belfort-lite, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) gets wind of Burry’s predictions, he smells profit and a wrong call to Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his associates results in an uncomfortable working relationship that could, however, make them all very rich men. Lastly is a couple of young guns, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), trying to make a name for themselves in the financial game. With some golden info to hand, but without the fire power to do anything with it, they call on an old friend (and former Wall Street trader) Ben Rickert (Pitt) for some much needed help.
Think the geeks’ version of The Wolf of Wall Street and you’re not a billion miles away with The Big Short. It’s an easy but fair comparison to make and one McKay seems happy to nod too. Character’s breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the camera, TWOWS star Margo Robbie popping up to make a surprising cameo appearance, and Ryan Gosling – hair dye galore – capturing the Leo/Belfort spirit; all so very Wolfy, right?
Yet unlike Scorsese’s 2013 hit which is all about the glorification of a corrupt market and the few who made the most of it, this financial feature has (or so it believes) its backbone firmly intact. Beyond the financial jargon, it’s trying particularly hard to let us know that not all bankers are soulless. Carell’s Mark Baum is the feature’s ultimate moral compass, agonising over his brother’s death, (a former investor like himself) making his brooding and sighing a sign that he’s feeling the pain of the ramifications the market collapse would have on billions of innocent people. There is a feeling that, below that shocking headpiece of his, the Foxcatcher star’s turn as the conflicted money man is heartfelt, yet its origins feel somewhat passive amongst The Big Short’s complex narrative.
Although a surprising choice to direct, McKay’s involvement appears to have been a masterstroke. Quirky comedic touches, such as celebrity cameos (Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, et al.) acting as talking dictionaries, are enjoyable off-the-wall distractions, whilst a combination of Carell’s obnoxious wit and Gosling’s bullish persona made the spectacle funnier than it had any right to be.
Big numbers, long words and plenty of running around financial conventions… It’s complex and tiring, but spirited and funny, with an intellect that can feel overwhelming, yet never – thanks to the director – patronising. It may not fully succeed at digging under its messy surface (fraud!), but there’s plenty here to get you thinking.