Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo. Directed by Adam McKay. (2015, 130 min). PARAMOUNT
While I remember the financial bubble bursting in 2008, causing a global crisis, I never gave much thought about what actually triggered it. Sure, I heard lots of soundbites tossed around about the housing market and bank screw-ups, but for the most part, the whole thing was simply too complex and confusing for my feeble mind to grasp. Kind of like Algebra when I was in high school.
But I did have one high school teacher, Mr. Oldham, who was able to explain Algebra in a way I could actually understand (at least long enough for me to graduate). The Big Short is the cinematic version of Mr. Oldham: The reasons for the financial crash are indeed complex, yet made crystal clear in the most entertaining way possible. This film is, by turns, funny, dramatic, suspenseful, infuriating...even a quite scary at times.
Taking place mostly during the months leading up to the crash, nobody appears to suspect the end of the decades-long mortgage boom (through which the biggest banks in the world have reaped billions) is about to come to a devastating end. A few intuitive guys, however, discover the housing market is actually wildly unstable due to years of writing high-risk subprime loans (which become difficult for borrowers to pay back). One of the first to predict the inevitable crash is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an eccentric, heavy metal-loving fund manager who bets against the housing market with his investors' money. Meanwhile, self-serving bond salesman Jared Vennett (Ryan Cosling) convinces FrontPoint Capital, headed by Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to invest in the same credit default swap. Similarly, two young Wall Street hopefuls (John Magaro & Finn Wittrock) come across Vennett's proposal (which was rejected by another bank). With the reluctant help of their cynical, retired mentor, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), they decide to take the same risk in the hopes of making millions.
This actually plays a lot better than it sounds. I've never read the book on which it's based, but despite the potentially dry, dull and confusing subject matter, The Big Short is similar in pace, tone and structure to Goodfellas, and just as morbidly compelling. The players involved are fascinating characters. None are exactly heroes (though the brash, brazen Baum actually comes close), we root for them because, even though some of them are motivated by personal gain, the practices of the banks they're squaring-off against are so greedy, short-sighted and downright illegal that we're actually rooting for the whole system to come crashing down.
While the film is given a considerable boost by performances from its ensemble cast (there's no single main character), director/co-writer Adam McKay deserves a huge share of the credit. The screenplay (which won a well-deserved Oscar) is sharp, knowing and often quite funny. Despite running 130 minutes, McKay makes every scene count and maintains our interest even during the most information-heavy scenes. There are even moments that are almost apocalyptic in tone, where we feel the fate of the world is at stake. What's truly scary is the fact that the film ends with an ominous reminder that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And remember...this is coming from the guy most famous for directing Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Who knew?
The Big Short earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and a strong argument could be made that it should have won. Unlike some of the others which shared the nomination this year, it joins The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road as one most-worth revisiting again and again as pure entertainment. The Big Short has a good shot at becoming a classic of this era.
- Featurettes: "In the Trenches: Casting"; "The Big Leap: Adam McKay"; "Unlikely Heroes: The Characters of The Big Short"; "The House of Cards: The Rise of the Fall"; "Getting Real: Recreating an Era"
- Deleted Scenes
- DVD & Digital Copies