FOUR men betting against the American economy is the focus point for The Big Short, an overtly complex but generally entertaining character study that succeeds at bringing a humorous side to an otherwise serious subject.
Neurologist-turned-hedge fund manager and drumming obsessed Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers flaws in the American housing market in 2005, so effectively bets with his investors’ money, that the system will collapse in mid-2007.
Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) learns of Burry’s theory and convinces FrontPoint Capital manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrel) and his colleagues that persistent weak loans being incorrectly graded AAA ratings will lead to the housing collapse. Despite being aware of what is happening before anyone else, they too bet against the market, knowing the profit they will make as a result of the actions of the greed-fuelled banks.
Two ambitious investors Geller and Shipley (John Magaro & Fin Wittrock) also discover what is occurring and enlist the skills of former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) who reluctantly agrees to guide them to a piece of the action.
What follows is the tension-fuelled events leading up to 2007 and through to 2008 when the price for success of those who bet is revealed to be an American economy in worse shape than thought, leaving ruin for millions of ordinary American workers.
For the record, this is a good film and it is entertaining, largely thanks to the performances of the four main actors who do a splendid job at maintaining the interest. The main thing to understand though is that the measurement of enjoyment will be based on those who know what they know about the subject.
To those who have a degree in economics or know their stuff when it comes to the world of banking, this is a film that they will be able to watch and enjoy without feeling overwhelmed.
To those who prior to watching this didn’t know what a tranche or a CDO meant (one admits to this), this will still entertain, but not as much as those mentioned prior. In fact, it is whether they can engage with the characters at the heart of this film and get the humour that is key to whether they enjoy it or not.
Bale, Carell, Gosling and Pitt manage to bring a genuine interest to the characters they each play, specifically in the case of Carell who as the foul-mouthed, temperamental, morally correct Baum brings a diverse range of humour as well as sympathy on his part. From first seeing him hijack a group meeting without any compassion for his fellow attendees to breaking down in front of his wife (Marisa Tomei) as he recounts his brother’s suicide, it is arguably the best performance in the film.
As with Little Miss Sunshine and Foxcatcher, Carell continues to demonstrate he works best when not playing goofy romantic leads and bringing a convincing portrayal of tormented or darkly-written characters.
Pitt also shines in his role as Rickert, who like Baum, in a greed-driven world displays a genuine sense of morality and is also the forefront for the two best sequences in the film. When Geller and Shipley start dancing in celebration following a successful deal made in Las Vegas, Rickert chastises the two of them by warning them that if the deal they made eventually succeeds, it is the security of others at stake.
In another, on the day they need to sell their stock, the wannabe investors are forced to correspond with their mentor in a pub in Exmouth where he is on holiday and where the nearest Wi-fi is available.
What also helps the film succeed is its thought-provoking section. We watch a father visited by one of Baum’s colleagues who inadvertently reveals he is likely a victim of the many dodgy loans taken out by landlords. We know the economy will collapse and we know what the outcome will be for many households, because the film is based on true events, that just being one of them.
We continue to watch though as we feel intrigued as to what the men who bet against the housing market collapse are about to discover as the financial crisis gradually hits. They make their money, which somehow we want to see happen but it is the differences in the characters’ actions that make this film watchable as it is.
The Big Short may prove slightly tricky at absorbing the subject matter, but it still manages to succeed both as a strong character display and a good mix of comedy and drama revolving around the mid-to-late 2000s financial crisis.