A wise man once said that there are two things which can never be hidden: the presence of beauty, and the absence of money. Barring a brief interlude featuring Margot Robbie in a bath (and how often can some of you say that you will have decided to see a film before the second sentence of the review is done?) The Big Short concerns itself primarily with the inevitability of the latter.
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis it tells the tale of the grand collapse of the world’s financial systems, a collapse conceived by the parents of most of humanity’s more regrettable weaknesses: greed and stupidity.
This story is told through three groups of protagonists who are each conducting the titular ‘short’, basically an insurance policy taken out against the US economy. First is Christian Bale as the somewhat left-of-centre Michael Burry, the first man to discover the shifting sands on which the global economy is so precariously perched. Dabbing the moisture that leaks from his glass eye and air-drumming along to Pantera in his office, he’s a million miles from the Wolf of Wall Street image of the financial guru that graced our screens a couple of years ago – and a damn sight better acted too.
The film’s heart and conscience is provided by Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, a man rubbed raw by the daily outrages he sees perpetuated on Wall Street and yet still leading the (pretty requisite in a set-up like this) maverick team of traders who are handed the keys to the kingdom courtesy of Ryan Gosling’s slick and slimy narrator Jared Vennet. Carell mostly carries what could be something of a one-note character through sheer force of personal charisma, but even he occasionally struggles to wring depth from yet another ‘storming through the streets of New York angrily yelling down a phone’ sequence.
Finally we have the dynamic duo of Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock respectively) who call up Brad Pitt’s seriously jaded ex-banker Ben Rickert to get the foot in the door they need to make more than just a few paltry million off this chance of a lifetime.
This is a film which plays with the idea of contempt for its audience. An array of fourth wall-breaking celebrity cameos pop up to explain some of the more intricate details of the financial machinations at play (the aforementioned Ms. Robbie, as well as Selena Gomez at a blackjack table and Anthony Bourdain expounding a fish stew metaphor which just about works if you don’t look at it too closely) and the message is clear: you proles, gorged fat and apathetic on pop culture trivia and social media inanities, wouldn’t even look up from your games of Candy Crush if we didn’t have some teen nymphet in a low-cut dress spelling things out for you. It’s a clever tactic, in that it wins coming and going: Margot in the bath is a tempting prospect no matter what, and self-satisfied cynics like me get to pat ourselves on the back for getting the joke.
The problem is that it leaves the film lacking something of a centre, something of a heart. We’re treated to jumping and insistent images of all the ghastly paraphernalia of the modern consumerist life, we talk to estate agents and strippers and hedge fund managers, we’re shown billions of dollars appearing and disappearing as nothing more than numbers on a whiteboard, but what are few and far between are the real people. The film is at its strongest at occasional moments when it takes a breath and lets the camera hang for a moment on a freeway where the flash and roar of traffic draws the eye up from under the bridge where a rough shantytown sits, or when we see a family huddled around an obviously lived-in car. The golden rule of narrative is show, don’t tell, and a barked lecture from Brad Pitt in a casino about the ethics of making money off people’s misery isn’t the same as doing the hard cinematic graft of actually showing people’s misery.
It’s a well-made film, which has obviously (and perhaps a little ironically) had a lot of money thrown at it. But for a film obviously intended to lay bare the sins of a nation it seems to get a little too caught up in the glamour and hustle of the enterprise for its moral point to really hit home. To paraphrase Mark Baum’s incredulous dismissal of Max Greenfield’s character putting the ‘bro’ in mortgage broker: The Big Short is meant to be confessing, instead it just seems to be bragging. 3/5