September 11, 2016

The Big Short (2015)

When a hedge fund manager named Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers that the USA's housing market is perilously unstable, he sets off a chain reaction of similar managers and entrepreneurs (played by Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and others) all taking advantage of a never-before-developed credit-default swap market. If their investments pay off, they will be rich - but the American economy will collapse.

This is such an improbably brilliant film. It is an ensemble drama about the American financial crisis that started in 2007 and spurred on the global financial crisis (GFC) of the following year. It takes often-times confusing and complicated issues and financial terms and lays them out to its audience in a manner that is not only intelligible but hugely entertaining. Most improbably of all, what is one of the best American dramas of 2015 has been directed by Adam McKay - a hugely talented director, but one whose most famous films prior to this one are the comedies Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Talladega Nights (2006).

I think it is important to acknowledge what a huge creative achievement this film is. The GFC was a devastating event that shook the planet and directly affected billions of lives, and yet explaining how it actually happened is a task that usually requires long lectures and a couple of whiteboard diagrams. McKay makes do with Selena Gomez at a blackjack table and Margot Robbie in a bubble bath. There are three tools that McKay uses that enables him to not only explain the economics of the situation but make it incredibly watchable cinema at the same time. The first is self-awareness: the film reassures its audience that the situation was ridiculous and difficult to understand, and even takes pains to admit which parts of the story are real and which parts have been invented to massage the narrative. The second tool is humour. The film admits that the situation is ridiculous and farcical, and takes an unexpectedly light-hearted tone with what is ultimately deadly serious problems. Finally the film relies on analogy, hence the cameos by Gomez, Robbie and a bunch of other people. They explain the problems and economic mistakes in a manner that the general viewer can understand. Do we get a comprehensive understanding of the sub-prime mortgage housing market? Probably not, but what we do get is enough of an understanding to follow the story of the film.

Beyond that, The Big Short is simply an outstanding film drama. The plotting and editing work together to give the film a relentless, gripping place. The tone may be different, but the technique felt very similar to Michael Mann's 1999 drama The Insider. Both films essentially take a series of conversations between angry men in rooms and make it feel gripping and involving. The pace never lets up. The scene transitions are perfectly pitched, and keep the film barrelling along at a tremendous rate.

The film boasts uniformly strong performances. Christian Bale is great as the awkward, mildly eccentric Michael Burry. Other actors such as Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt do not offer anything beyond what we have seen them do before, but they deliver them very effectively and are tremendously watchable. Smaller supporting roles are played by the likes of Rafe Spall, Marisa Tomei, Jeremy Strong and Finn Wittrock, and they are all tremendously watchable and very believable.

Steve Carell delivers yet another performance that makes me wish he would focus exclusively on drama; not because I think he's a poor comic actor, but because he seems so good in drama that it's a shame to see him do anything else. As the tightly wound, emotionally wounded Mark Baum he gives the film an angry moral centre. That makes Baum a hugely important character, because in a film full of greedy, money-hungry bankers, he emerges as one of only two characters who actually get a proper emotional handle on what happens to millions of American families if their predictions come true. The other is Brad Pitt's character Ben Rickert, who has already abandoned the financial sector by the time he enters the film. Baum has not: he rides the economic collapse all the way down, and hates himself as a result.

Terrible things are done by America's banks and government. It is entertaining to watch the disaster unfold, and the film's cast of characters scramble to anticipate and profit from it, but the final emotion you walk away with is disgust, shortly followed by dread. It is a complex, enormously powerful movie: funny, dramatic, tragic, and terrifying. This is really something special.

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