Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Big Short

The Big Short (2015)

Starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell
Directed by Adam McKay


The global financial crash of 2008, and the forensic detail of its causes and consequences, is potentially the least likely prospective subject for an engaging mainstream film. Ever. Let alone a funny one.  Certainly, big money movies can play well, but have tended to be about the people rather than the event.  From the era-defining Faustian melodrama of Oliver Stone's 80s masterpiece "Wall Street" to the insanely amusing hedonism of Martin Scorsese's "Wolf" thereof, it's always tended to be that the focus has been on individuals in a larger story, rather than the story itself.  Enter Michael Lewis, the author and ex-Wall Street bond trader who has perfected the art, over the years since his hysterical memoir "Liar's Poker", of writing books which are populated by distinctive, memorable real-life characters, but which manage to get to the heart of the overall picture.  Taking in subjects as widespread as professional baseball scouting ("Moneyball") to eccentric tech entrepreneurship ("The New New Thing"), but often returning to finance ("Flash Boys", "Boomerang") Lewis' books convey often highly complex or technical details in a manner easy to understand, making the narratives read like novels. Thus "The Big Short",  Lewis' gripping tale of how a disparate bunch of people similarly predicted the puncturing of the  sub-prime housing bubble in the late naughties and sought to profit from it, was ripe for the telling. 

And what a tall tale it is.

The film's director, Adam McKay, having brought us the "Anchorman" films, and "Step Brothers", big dumb, fun - but often extremely funny films - was understandably a strange choice to helm this sort of a film, with a deeply serious and affecting underlying commodity. But anyone who saw his 2010 cop-buddy movie "The Other Guys", which starred Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, might have been prepared to expect the director's cynical and comic eye, particularly in light of that film's closing credit sequence. McKay brings an unexpected freshness and humour to this history and story, and has really crafted an extraordinary motion picture from a deeply complex and perplexing narrative (aided by Lewis' lucid text). But with a curiously comfortable sense of humour.

By necessity, the cast of characters is a mismatched ensemble, because the main players in the story flew up from all across America, albeit that they had a roughly similar idea at roughly the same time. Chief is probably Steve Carell (playing Mark Baum - think that name has been changed from reality), who is a premier actor, not just a comedian (as stated previously herein) as the guy who figures it all out, makes a lot of money, but still ends up feeling hurt and betrayed at the end of things  due to the sheer maliciousness of the big banks (and we sympathise with his pain and utter dejected state at the film's climax ). Ryan Gosling is mesmeric and charming as Bond flogger Jared Vennett, who slowly comes to realise the magnitude of the situation. There's a brilliant scene in which he demonstrates the unfolding situation to Baum and his crew using Jenga blocks... a fragile foundation indeed! But he's just trying to sell them a trade. And Christian Bale, as highly eccentric money manager Michael Burry, who predicts the collapse years in advance and has to ride out a world of losses on his books before the position finally turns good, is fantastic. There's alot of good support too from the likes of Brad Pitt, in a smaller role, making every character feel genuine and concerned.


Above all, this is a detective film, and as such, it's totally compelling. We, the audience, might know or understand nothing about the history of this crash, even as we felt its influence. And the traders in the film don't understand what's happening either.  One of the best scenes is when the gang head down to Florida to burn some shoe leather, and discover that countless people are over mortgaged.  Their shock is palpable - as is ours watching.  How did this happen?  How did the authorities not see this coming? How could the world economy be destroyed? Two smarmy mortgage brokers they meet laugh unconcernedly and joke about how big their boats are going to be. It's nonsensical, and disturbing ; but illustrative of the thinking which lay behind the whole farrago. One of the most striking scenes involves a meeting with one of the Ratings Agencies - who assured everyone the Mortgage Backed Securities / Collateralized Debt Obligations were sound - in which the lady admits that they had absolutely NO IDEA what was in them and therefore what they were talking about.  It's a real head-scratcher... Even more so because they are still trotted out as authorities by the media today. They're charlatans and criminals. 

Mackay directs with an impressive vigour, and a restrained sense of equal parts disbelief, cynicism, anger and mockery. His use of time-lapse to show the passing of time between archive footage of the initial invention of the dubious, fragile financial instruments and the present day is brilliant (even including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Sasha Baron-Cohen in Ali G get up which just yells "stupidity"!)  And despite bringing the audience to the mid naughties, the film feels like a period piece, and not just because of the size of the mobile phones, but because of the mindset.  The employment of music is inspired - "Money Maker" by Ludacris, an awesome choral version of Nirvana's "Lithium" performed by The Polyphonic Spree, "Feel Good Inc" by Gorillaz all play key parts in underscoring the drama. Stylistically, it's reminiscent of a very restrained "Natural Born Killers" at times.

So this is a film about the unlikeliest of topics, but one which is unexpectedly brilliant. It has a crackling funny script, a stellar cast, and above all its prime accomplishment is to remain amusing and interesting - and informative. 

"It ain't what you know that gets you into trouble, it's what you know for sure just ain't so."  - Mark Twain. 

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