0459 | The Big Short

The idea of a writer/director leaving stoopid Ferrellian comedy behind for a foray into serious filmmaker territory, as Adam McKay has done, is certainly intriguing. I’m impressed that McKay decided to take on a project like The Big Short, a semi-serious film about a serious issue, and I hope he continues to branch out in such a manner in the future. (I’m sure he’ll be more inclined to continue steering his career in this direction in the wake of the various Oscar nominations he and his latest work have received, rather than because of my patronage, but whatever.) The film is a busy, energetic and occasionally insightful study of the men who shorted – i.e. bet huge sums of money against – the American housing market prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, and the narrative flits between three separate groups of characters, the real life equivalents of which spotted that the market was unstable and would eventually collapse while everyone else maintained unshakable faith in it. The first skeptic in the movie is Christian Bale’s hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who bets huge amounts of his clients’ money and must subsequently placate a number of angry men – this is a man-heavy film – as he hopes and waits for the crash to happen. The film also makes plenty of time for young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who enlist the help of Brad Pitt’s retired banker as they seek to make their fortune. Then there’s a hedge fund team led by Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, who fortuitously learn of Burry’s actions via slick trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). The three storylines never quite meet, even though plenty of common ground is shared between them, though there is one scene at a financial conference in which it looks like McKay is about to unite several characters; thankfully he doesn’t.

McKay has stretched himself with this film, though I’m not sure that The Big Short is anything more than a solid platform for further endeavour. Not that I’m implying it’s a dud, or anything: clearly it’s an enjoyable, knockabout couple of hours that has played well with audiences, featuring good-looking famous people in cameos, brief asides, conspiratorial narration, kinetic cultural montages, Schoonmaker-style editing and the kind of deliberate, jerky camera movement that seems designed to create bogus indie or lower-budget credibility. On this camera movement, briefly: I liked some of it, when it served a clear purpose; a scene in which Baum thinks about his brother’s suicidal leap off a skyscraper, which is followed by a series of quick downward pans across a number of different images, for example. Otherwise it got on my fucking nerves. Visually there is so much going on here that the film is clearly the work of someone trying too hard to be taken seriously, with McKay regularly falling back on the default position of aping Scorsese at his loosest (there are, of course, worse people you could copy). The Big Short is so packed with stylistic tics and metronomic quirk that it never quite settles down, as if the director doesn’t fully trust that the material is interesting enough in its own right, though the style is at least reflective of the film’s hyper, fast-talking workaholic characters.

I was entertained for the duration, and McKay’s screenplay – based on the novel by Michael Lewis – certainly makes most of the financial wrangling interesting and accessible for those with little or no prior knowledge of the subject. That said, the explanatory cutaways featuring Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez discussing collateralized debt obligations and the like are unnecessary. At one point Vennett explains the housing market using a set of Jenga bricks; that kind of illuminating simplicity may be ridiculous but it does just about work within the scene in question … whereas the distracting cameos are a gimmick and completely destroy any momentum that had previously been building. At least the asides – another fourth wall-breaking device, mostly delivered by Gosling – manage to create a modicum of sympathy for the single most unsympathetic character here, and deliver a couple of laughs to boot.


Christian Bale as Michael Burry in The Big Short

Bale’s scenes are initially worrying. Burry has a glass eye and a penchant for eccentric behaviour (listening to heavy metal on his headphones in the middle of a face-to-face meeting, playing with drum sticks, sending mass emails that understandably cause concern for anyone who has to deal with him professionally), and at first it looks like it’s going to be a very hammy performance, but it settles down and Burry’s part of the story is engrossing. This in itself is quite an achievement, when you consider that it mostly involves a man sitting behind a desk, alone in his office, staring at a computer screen (by contrast all of the other characters jet off to exotic locations like Florida, Nevada and, er, the south of England). Elsewhere Pitt plays a typically confident individual in a typically-confident fashion, though that does make for an interesting dynamic between his conscientious banker Ben Rickert and the two chancing investors he hooks up with; McKay has Rickert deliver one of the film’s more memorable speeches when he admonishes Geller and Shipley for their enthusiasm as the market begins to collapse, pointing out that millions of people are going to lose their jobs and their homes as a result. Carell’s Baum is the only other character who acknowledges this, and he seems driven by a desire to stick it to the banks, which is odd when you consider that his hedge fund firm is propped up by one of them. In many respects Baum is the most interesting character here, and arguably the heart of the movie; tortured by his brother’s death but unable to open up to anyone about it, he arrives at therapy meetings late and proceeds to interrupt other people, while outside of the sessions he seems permanently angry. He’s also the only character we get to see with someone whose life lies outside of the financial industry: his wife, played by Marisa Tomei, who is given a paltry amount of screen time.

The three separate investor strands are roughly afforded the same amount of time in the screenplay, and the adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller by McKay and Charles Randolph is well-structured in this sense, moving from one to another fairly smoothly. It’s a shame that the writers get too bogged down with all the explanation, though, some of which is certainly necessary and some of which isn’t. A film like Moneyball, which I have picked for comparison because it was written by Lewis, keeps the story moving constantly while also dealing with terminology and the business of baseball in a more straightforward way; sadly The Big Short repeatedly grinds to a halt when McKay and Randolph attempt to make things clearer for the audience — a nice gesture, sure, but one that ends up making this film stutter. I also left the cinema wondering whether McKay has tried too hard to make viewers like his characters. I think it’s a clever move to get you to root for these people, and therefore enlisting stars like Pitt, Gosling and Bale, who have broad appeal, was a no-brainer. Yet there are times in which the film could have been tougher on these men, and perhaps a stronger opinion about their actions would have been welcome. The Big Short is a fun couple of hours but you’ll learn more about capitalism, greed and the sub-prime mortgage crisis from Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes. Now that’s a film made by a director who has confidence in his own story, his own ability as a filmmaker, and the ability of his actors to connect with the audience. I’m on the fence with regard to this one: plenty to enjoy, for sure, but a little overrated.

Directed by: Adam McKay.
Written by: Adam McKay, Charles Randolph. Based on The Big Short by Michael Lewis.
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt, Hamish Linklater, Ralph Spall, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye.
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd.
Editing: Hank Corwin.
Music: Nicholas Britell.
Running Time: 
130 minutes.

Comments 17

  1. ckckred January 30, 2016

    Nice review Stu. I share a similar opinion about The Big Short. I thought it did a solid job adapting Lewis’ book onto the screen and both Carell and Bale are in top form… but a lot of the self-referential humor (in particular the gratuitous celebrity cameos) really hurt the overall seriousness subject matter. But it’s still a very entertaining picture that well portrays the 2008 financial crisis.

    • Stu January 30, 2016

      Thanks a lot Charles – much appreciated. The two friends I watched the film with didn’t seem to mind the cameos at all, but they began to grate on me; I guess we should just be thankful it was limited to three occasions, as it could have been a lot worse. I enjoyed the film too, it’s good fun and explains the crisis well, while I liked the fact it’s quite tricky in the way it turns most of these guys into plucky underdogs (when in fact they’re rich – and fairly powerful – guys way before the crash happens).

  2. Cindy Bruchman January 31, 2016

    I enjoyed reading your review, Stu. I’m just gonna wait and watch this at home in the future. Do you notice a theme where cameos are used more and more? Seems like manipulation. That is, having a celebrity pop in to the plot is going to make the film better. Not usually! It’s distracting.

    • Stu January 31, 2016

      Thanks very much Cindy! I saw a lot of cameos last year, and they tend to be in more lighthearted material (certainly more lighthearted than this, though it does have its moments). I had the misfortune to watch Entourage and there are dozens of cameos in that, but yeah…seeing a lot at the moment and they nearly always take me out of the story.

  3. Adam (Consumed by Film) January 31, 2016

    Enlightening as always Stu. I liked the film more than you but I do see where you’re coming from on certain aspects (that the central betters aren’t treated quite as harshly as you might like, for instance). In general though I thought the camera-work matched the maniacal industry, and I even enjoyed the scenes with Gomez etc. — I felt they worked in promoting humanity’s unhealthy obsession with celebs. I’m certainly intrigued to see what is next for McKay; perhaps this will act as a springboard for something even better.

    • Stu January 31, 2016

      Thanks Adam. I like your point about the camerawork being somehow befitting of the industry itself, though I’m still not convinced about it save for a couple of instances. We will have to agree to disagree on the cameos…for me they just reinforce the fact that I’m watching this big entertaining Hollywood THING, and normally I want to try and forget that when a film in question starts. At least it wasn’t overused.

        • Stu February 1, 2016

          I do think it’s quite amusing that we (meaning the viewers, generally, who probably don’t have much in the way of specialist financial knowledge) have to have stuff explained in basic terms, but then so do the hedge fund team managed by Carell’s character when they’re in the office with Vennett, where he’s using Jenga to illustrate a point. That says it all!

    • Stu February 1, 2016

      Bale’s character is quite interesting, and I think the movie does a good job of revealing how he thinks (or how he acts, perhaps more accurately) as it goes on. It’s worth seeing – I enjoyed it even though there was too much of the try-hard visual stuff for my liking.

  4. Mark Walker February 1, 2016

    I honestly think your reading my mail, bro. 😉
    We seem to have ye same opinion of this one yet again. I liked it but McKay’s direction can be too frantic and off-putting. Sometimes his stylistic devices didn’t help the narrative flow very well and it was a hard film to keep up with as it was. I too thought that he could have displayed a more personal or scathing opinion on the actions of the lead characters. They seemed to get away with being frowned upon. Like you say, there’s plenty to enjoy but it’s overrated. I gave it 3.5 and as much as I admired much of it, it was hard film to fully embrace.

    • Stu February 1, 2016

      Haha we definitely disagreed on Interstellar a while back so maybe we need to watch that again! I’ve read a number of reviews that highlight the same points about The Big Short. Like you I do find it hard to fully get behind this film; perhaps it’s the whole Oscar thing – if I’d seen this without the weight of expectation and without the hype machine in play then I’d have been more pleasantly surprised and maybe not so hard on it. As it is it arrived here as one of the nominated Best Pictures, which makes me approach it thinking ‘OK…so how good is it really?’. Had the same feeling going into Spotlight earlier and by way of contrast that totally measures up. It’s not necessarily the most objective way of approaching things…but I can’t help but be influenced by the hype. Anyway – the points you make are all fair but equally I don’t want to be too hard on McKay…I think he does some good things here too, and parts zip along with the right amount of energy. He gets some pretty good performances out of his cast (though no-one’s quite on the top of their game, except maybe Bale if you’re being generous). I’m definitely keen to see what he does next.

      • Mark Walker February 2, 2016

        Haha! YOU need to watch Interstellar again, you mean? I stand by my opinion! 😉

        Jesting aside, I think your spot on. The awards buzz surrounding this film does do it a disservice. I would probably have judged it less harshly as a result. I had the same issue with Spotlight; I liked it but it’s no All The Presidents Men which it has been likened too. On that same note, I just viewed The Martian and I’m not a massive fan like most. The awards noms and recognitions are not warranted and it pisses me off.

        As for the performances, in The Big Short, though. It was Gosling who worked for me. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before but I found him quite comfortable in the role. Carrel was good and so was Bale but I’m really surprised by Bale’s nomination. He’s good but it’s not Oscar nomination good. Hey ho! I’m hoping for better this year. I’ve been a bit disappointed in 2015/16 overall.

        • Stu February 2, 2016

          Two and a half hours of overblown nonsense!
          I actually loved Spotlight, and I’d be happy to see it win Best Picture. But I’m trying hard not to give a shit – Carol wasn’t nominated for Best Picture and Todd Haynes didn’t get nominated for Best Director, which is a joke when you sit through some of the other stuff…even if it’s good, to a point, like The Big Short. Every year there’s something though, eh? I quite liked The Martian as a fun, Saturday night kinda movie but didn’t think it was anything special. Ticked a few entertainment boxes.
          With both Bale and Carell, I like them both here but you’re always aware that they’re acting, if you know what I mean. That’s not the case with Gosling, though I wonder whether that’s just because he doesn’t have the same range and has delivered similar performances over and over with slight variations each time that it gets to a point that you end up buying his character every time. I know he has been around for a while and has delivered some good performances, but I think it’ll be interesting to see him go for something vastly different in The Nice Guys.

  5. Three Rows Back February 1, 2016

    I’ll be honest Stu, I loved this. Some films don’t stay with me for more than a few minutes after but I’ve been thinking about this since I watched it at the weekend. I take what you say seriously and appreciate your argument; I guess it clocked more with me.

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