Release date: 22 January 2016
Running time: 130 min
Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt.
The 2008 financial crisis. A huge economic crash from which America, and much of the rest of the world, has still not recovered. In hindsight you wonder why nobody saw it coming; the proliferation of irresponsible money lending was bound to have dire consequences sooner rather than later. What we’ve learned is that the banks more or less saw what was in store, but knew the government would bail them out. However they weren’t the only ones to see it coming, and it was this group outsiders who pulled off one of the riskiest gambles in history.
When eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale) discovers a bubble in the housing market, he decides to bet against the banks with almost all his investor’s money. It doesn’t take long for word to get out about his controversial gamble, with his antics attracting the attention of trader Jared Vennett (Gosling). Determined to find a way in, he entices Mark Baum (Carrell) and his team with reassurances of huge profits. Meanwhile, two young investors stumble upon Vennett’s findings, and enlist retired banker Ben Rickert (Pitt) to help them get a piece of the action.
Very much following on the coat tails of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short covers the same themes of corruption and excess, exposing the shady side of capitalism. Much of Wolf‘s superficial pizzazz is mirrored with Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography and Hank Corwin’s flashy editing, but it’s clear that McKay is going for more bite, bringing to mind the righteous anger of Oliver Stone.
Sadly, it’s the inability to reconcile these two elements which delivers the biggest blow. Adam McKay’s background is almost solely in Will Ferrell comedies, from Anchorman and its sequel, to Step Brothers and The Other Guys. The jokes in The Big Short are occasionally funny, but he clearly wants to have his cake and eat it. By the time they’ve noticed that they’ll be preying on other people’s misery, there’s a slight change in pace while our protagonists feel various levels of guilt for their actions, but it all feels a but preachy and a chronic case of too little, too late.
The constant breaking of the fourth wall, with Ryan Gosling talking directly to camera, feels more smug and unnecessary with every passing minute . Even more smug are the real-life celebrity cameos from the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez, who show up at various, seemingly random points to explain sub-prime mortgages and CDOs. Infact, the less said about the women the better; one scene in particular involving Steve Carrell and a stripper is particularly banal and unwarranted.
The performances range in quality; Carrell is mildly irritating as the perpetually angry Mark Baum, but Bale’s restrained, off-beat turn is the highlight. Quite whether he deserves an Academy award nomination is a different matter though. It’s clear what McKay has tried to do here, and in a way it’s an admirable attempt at interpreting a thoroughly bizarre and infuriating true story. It all just feels too familiar, and it suffers from its own ambition. If the film’s title feels like a contradiction in terms, then it’s more than a little ironic.