In its opening scenes, The Big Short tells us that the financial sector uses impenetrable jargon in order to convince the public that economics is terribly complicated and bankers are the only people who can do it. The film then plays around with this idea, to hilarious effect. When supposedly esoteric concepts crop up, The Big Short wheels out a parade of celebrities to explain them to us. If Selena Gomez can explain synthetic CDOs, the film asks, then they can’t be that complicated, can they?
That’s The Big Short in a nutshell. The financial crash of 2008, which the banks would like us to believe was due to Very Complicated Things, actually had very simple causes: fraud, stupidity and above all, greed.
It all starts when Michael Burry (Christian Bale) predicts that the housing bubble is due to pop. Bale plays Burry as just short of an idiot savant. He’s accused of acting like he’s the smartest guy in the room, but that’s because he is the smartest guy in the room and he doesn’t possess the social skills to pretend otherwise. That might sound annoying, but Bale manages to make Burry sympathetic.
Burry invests millions in credit default swaps, essentially betting against the banks. It isn’t long before Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) gets wind of Burry’s investments. Gosling plays against type here, portraying Vennett as a slimy, sleazy, but disarmingly honest, banker. He teams up with Steve Carell’s Mark Baum, a crusader fighting against corruption in the financial sector. Carell proves that his Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher wasn’t just a flash in the pan, imbuing Baum with angry energy and a truckload of neuroses.
Meanwhile, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are rookie brokers who also get involved in the credit default swap market. They bring an old friend, retired broker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, who also produces), to help them out.
The film shifts between these three narratives with a frenetic energy that ensures we never lose interest. Although, the subject matter is such that, even without the laughs (of which there’s a lot) and the healthy disregard for the fourth wall, this would still be gripping stuff. The outright fraud and the downright stupidity that led to the financial crash are fascinating in and of themselves.
There’s almost an air of satire to The Big Short. If the Great Recession had never happened, if this wasn’t based on true stories, then the absurd events detailed here would easily allow the film to take a place among the likes of Network and Dr. Strangelove.
And like any good (almost) satire, there is a vein of righteous indignation flowing through The Big Short. This is a very funny film, but it never loses sight of the fact that these events led to people losing their jobs, losing their homes, losing their lives.
The big surprise here, of course, is that The Big Short is written and directed by Adam McKay, a man whose career up until now has consisted entirely of Will Ferrell shouting a lot. With McKay at the helm, it’s no wonder that The Big Short is a funny film. It is a wonder, and a very welcome surprise, that it is thought-provoking, anger-inducing, and even almost ten years since the events it depicts, still tragically relevant.