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The Big Short review: chaotic financial farce

January 21, 2016

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Dominic Preston

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry in The Big Short from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises

Based on the book of the same name, The Big Short follows four denizens of the high-finance world as they predict – and ultimately seek to profit from – the 2007-2008 housing market crash. Whilst the big banks, the media and the government are greedily blinded by the glare of mounting gold, a few brave individuals see what they cannot: the impending global collapse of the economy. To chide them for their lack of foresight, the bold bet against the banks. You already know how the story ends.

The funny man behind Step Brothers and Anchorman 2 might appear an odd choice to direct a film about one of the most grave and distressing financial crises the world has ever endured, but Adam McKay was a star booking. His previous plots rely on the preposterous, the ridiculous, the farcical. The credit bubble that caused the crash is one of the biggest farces in history. The narrative of The Big Short is so nonsensical, so unbelievable, that it couldn’t be made up.

An array of Hollywood’s finest golden boys have been enlisted to bring the complicated topic to the masses. Christian Bale plays a frantic Dr. Michael Burry, the loner money manager who first spotted the signs of corruption. His intelligence locks everyone out – audience and characters alike. Flashing images show his train of thought but we can’t keep up. As he talks he brushes his teeth, swigs water or fights with the sound of pounding drums so his words can’t quite be heard. It’s frustrating, but serves to echo the confusion of the real situation.

Steve Carell gives a stand out performance as rage-filled hedge-fund manager Mark Baum, conflicted with guilt over profiting from banks that are leaving ordinary people in the dirt. Indeed, Carell does an exquisite job etching that torture and turmoil in to his usually cartoon-like face.

Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling in The Big Short

The Big Short is unapologetic in breaking the fourth wall, with a perma-tanned, perm-haired Ryan Gosling narrating jovial asides to the camera. As a slick city banker he regularly calls upon famous friends to demystify financial jargon that the audience needs to understand in order to follow the story. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain compares collateralised debt obligation to your favourite fish stew. Singer Selena Gomez debunks extrapolation bias at a blackjack table. In a wry nod to fellow finance film The Wolf of Wall Street, Margot Robbie exposes mortgage-backed securities while exposing a little of herself in a bubble bath.

These celebrity asides are not the only filmmaking peculiarities that take some getting used to. It’s a movie for the YouTube generation. Just as an angsty teenager might update their Facebook status with a meme to illustrate their ‘current feels’, seemingly random videos flash across the screen to elucidate characters’ states of mind. Silly stick-man drawings appear during serious boardroom scenes. Indicative of 21st Century society’s painfully short attention span, sentences are abruptly cut short. The next scene is happening before the last one has even finished. The Big Short is a lecture delivered by an economics professor desperately trying to engage his generation Y pupils. It’s a strange meeting of the City worker and the Shoreditch hipster; but the most interesting collaborations grow from the unlikeliest of places.

The Big Short is chaotic; there’s no time to stop and wonder if it’s astutely groundbreaking or just plain odd. It’s so relentlessly frenzied that it’s only in the final five minutes that you realise just how sobering it really is. Once the experience is over the comedown is even harder for having had such a high. That lesson in the final few seconds is the real brilliance of this film: it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

Words by Anouszka Tate