Never before have subprime mortgages been so entertaining, or so enraging. The Big Short achieves the impossible by turning the dull story of the 2008 housing market crash into a hilarious comedy and a gripping demonstration of why the despicable bankers responsible deserve to have all manner of nasty things done to them. This movie provided me with more laughs than I have had in a long while, and also made for the most engaging cinematic experience of my life: as the corruption at the core of the events was slowly revealed, I found myself squirming in my seat with fury, unable to suppress the shocked gasps and angry hisses in response to what I saw. It begins as a light-hearted take on high finance, but by the end you will find yourself staring into the darkest depths of mankind’s capacity for greed and insensitivity.
Let me try to explain how The Big Short nails its subject matter and the way it approaches it. Most importantly, the fourth wall is broken so many times that by the end it lies in shattered pieces on the tarmac of Wall Street: characters address the camera mid-dialogue, and cutaways are used to allow celebrities to explain to the audience the big words so that we are never lost (not enough to ruin the experience, at least). From the outset, it is acknowledged that the subject matter is dull and confusing: we are made fully aware of our own ignorance by the arrogant narrator, Ryan Gosling’s character, who assures us that things will be explained as they progress so that the plot avoids becoming bogged down in financial jargon. The indisputable highlight of the movie – at least in terms of sheer entertainment – actually comes in a scene purely dedicated to explaining the details of the mortgages at the centre of the crisis. This is because, just at the moment when the terminology used in the dialogue becomes too much, our saving grace arrives as Gosling announces: “here’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain”. Sure enough, she appears, sipping champagne and submerged in soap bubbles. Upon finishing her lecture, Robbie promptly tells us to “fuck off”.
These moments of absurdity combine to create a film which feels truly unique. The director, Adam McKay, should be commended for his work in rendering a tricky subject matter relatively accessible and, most impressive of all, fun. On a side note, it also warms my heart to know that McKay, the mind behind comedies such as Anchorman and Step Brothers, is now Oscar-nominated. The director has said that his aim with this new project was to turn a tragedy into a comedy, and he has certainly achieved that. However, it was wisely decided that the tragic core of the story would not be lost: particularly in its later stages, the plot becomes less light-hearted in order to demonstrate the massive damage caused by the crimes of a few. This tale is told from the perspective of the real men who anticipated the crash and used the opportunity to make money. In doing so, we can appreciate the situation through the eyes of outsiders, some of whom were only in it for the money, and some of whom were disgusted by what they found.
The Big Short follows the ordeals of those who betted against the big banks by “shorting” the housing market. Among a large and adept cast, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carrell take centre stage. They play Michael Burry, Jared Vennett and Mark Baum respectively. The events begin with Burry, the socially awkward genius who predicts the crash simply by examining the data. Bale fully realises his character with limited screen-time, presenting a man who endures fury and ridicule from the ignorant majority simply because he knows that he is right. But he stands somewhat apart from the other characters, never really interacting with them. Gosling plays the heartless narcissist who is only here to make some extra millions with entertaining flair. But it is Carrell who really shines in a career-best performance. Baum, his character, is a man ruthlessly dedicated to fighting corruption, and Carrell conveys his pent-up aggression perfectly. Like the others, Baum shorts the market for profit, but out of curiosity he also uncovers the truth of why the bankers refuse to prevent the impending crisis. We invest in Baum more than any other character, since his journey parallels the audience’s: as he learns the truth, his outrage grows until it totally consumes him and leaves him with little more than grief for the ordinary victims of the crisis and hatred for those responsible.
The men that he talks to on his crusade are characterised in ways that are superficially humorous, but devastatingly cynical on a deeper level. For example, from one financier he learns of how the housing market has been built on progressively worse mortgage loans and has generated billions of dollars out of thin air – in other words, a recipe for disaster. This is done because those aware of the reality are profiting from it. Baum, with a look of absolute shock on his face, calls this insane: the other man calls it awesome. Other men seem totally ignorant to the damage they are causing, assuming that their bad financial strategies have no consequences. The sheer stupidity of these individuals is astounding, both to the more intelligent characters and to the audience.
The film also provides a grass-roots perspective at times, revealing the effect of the financial crisis on the ordinary person by including interactions of the protagonists with inhabitants of typical neighbourhoods who will unknowingly be cast out of their homes thanks to the impending disaster. This is crucial in shifting the tone into one of true sadness and in providing context for how the greedy rich men who dominate the film are destroying the lives of those beneath them.
By its end, The Big Short has inspired many different feelings: confusion at the economic details; amusement at the unpredictable comedy; anger at the ignorant and selfish bankers; delight at the final triumph of those who shorted the market and proved the bankers wrong; and sympathy for the individuals whose lives were ruined by forces that were beyond their control but nonetheless preventable. This is an experience which it is impossible not to engage with in every moment, and one which will not be forgotten for a long time. The big words thrown around in this film have taught me that there is a lot that I don’t know, but I do know one thing for sure: we could all do with more films like The Big Short.