When something cataclysmic occurs in the world, especially in America, you can bet your money that Hollywood will eventually step in to revisit it on screen.
In the case of the 2008 financial crisis that crippled Wall Street and left millions in the US unemployed and without homes, studios already have churned out countless films that relay what led to the collapse, and its ensuing ramifications.
Margin Call and The Wolf of Wall Street offered dizzying depictions of the meltdown in wildly different ways. JC Chandor went micro with Margin Call, focusing on a 36-hour window during which a large Wall Street investment bank slowly came to the realization that something very bad was about to happen. Martin Scorsese opted for a Grand Guignol approach with The Wolf of Wall Street: his big-budgeted biopic that tracked the rise and fall of former stockbroker Jordan Belfort.
With The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s bestselling non-fiction book, Adam McKay (writer/director of Anchorman) enters the fray to deliver a film that’s denser than both, but not as memorable as either.
Lewis’s book, like the film adaptation, spans the years leading up to the 2008 crash, following those who believed the bubble would burst, and the few who figured out how to profit from it. Those looking to cash in are played by Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt – all no doubt enlisted to make the complex material palpable to a mainstream audience.
Those showy performances are what make The Big Short watchable. All of the male characters (Marisa Tomei is wasted in a few scenes as Carell’s worried wife) are clearly defined by bizarre traits that serve to show the types of brazen personalities that thrive in such a chaotic environment.
Bale stands out with the most unhinged performance of the ensemble as hedge fund manager Michael Burry. Totally lacking in social graces (he paces his office barefoot), Burry is prone to rocking out to heavy metal music to get his brain working at warp speed and also sports a glass eye.
Gosling,asJared Vennett, the film’s smug narrator, is a douchebag banker to the Nth degree: all spray tanned, and bursting at the seams with an inflated sense of self. Pitt, who gets far less screen time than both, is shaggy and disaffected as Ben Rickert, a former banker gone rogue.
Carell is arguably the film’s lead as Mark Baum, an anti-authoritarian hedge funder who loathes the corruption Wall Street has bred. As the only voice of reason throughout the perplexing scenarios that McKay cooks up (one extended sequence involves Vennett making a grand case, using Jenga blocks, for why Baum should join him in the credit-default-swap business), Carell essentially serves as the heart of the otherwise cynical film. It’s another strong dramatic showing for the comedic actor, who surprised in last year’s Foxcatcher.
The cast uniformly pull off the impressive feat of owning the financial lingo that constitutes much of McKay and Charles Randolph’s uncompromising script. Scene after scene, Carell and co fire off terms, like“synthetic collateralized debt obligation”, that only Wall Street types will be wholly familiar with.
To help unpack much of it, McKay breaks the fourth wall and uses Gosling and guest stars as his go-betweens with the audience and the jargon-using bankers. The Wolf of Wall Street breakout Margot Robbie is brought on for a cameo to explain sub-prime mortgages, while seductively taking a bubble bath and sipping on champagne. Selena Gomez, also playing herself, later pops up to gamely rundown something equally as complex. The device does indeed make the financial terminology easier to digest, but it also stops The Big Short’s narrative drive dead in its tracks.
As a result, much of The Big Short plays like a trying lecture, despite the star wattage on display. McKay’s attempt to cover so much ground is admirable; and the outrage that courses throughout is deeply felt. But his busy execution – bolstered by frantic cinematography that makes the whole endeavor unfortunately resemble an episode of The Office – feels labored. McKay fails to transfer Lewis’s source material into purely cinematic terms.
This article was written by Nigel M Smith, for theguardian.com on Friday 13th November 2015 19.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010