Adam McKay (2015)
The ‘short’ in the title means ‘bet against’. The bet in question is that the US housing market, based on unstable subprime loans, will collapse in the second quarter of 2007. In other words, the big short proved a winning bet on a spectacular scale for the punters concerned, while the housing market collapse meant ruin and misery for millions of others, in America and across the world. Eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the first to read the financial runes. Others who get in on the act include: Mark Baum (Steve Carell), the manager of a small investment bank, and his team there (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall and Jeremy Strong); a pair of ambitious rookie traders (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock); and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a retired Wall Street trader whom the rookies persuade to mentor them. Also at the heart of the story, and our narrator, is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). He’s a bond salesman at Deutsche Bank. Vennett gets wind of Burry’s calculations and decides to short something called collateralised debt obligations (CDOs), even though Deutsche Bank is part of the CDO business. Most of these characters are based on real-life financiers whose names have been changed. The screenplay, by the director Adam McKay and Charles Rudolph, is based on Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, published in 2010. (Lewis is also the author of the non-fiction books on which The Blind Side and Moneyball were based.) The Big Short isn’t a likeable film but it’s an interesting one. Both these qualities are largely the result of a correlation between the canny, unscrupulous behaviour of the main characters in the movie and the wiseguys who made it.
We know what will happen in The Big Short. We may know before we sit down in the cinema; even if we don’t, Jared Vennett tells us within a couple of minutes of the start. Adam McKay and his brilliant editor, Hank Corwin, succeed in creating a prevailing tempo that’s right for a get-richer-quick story and gives that story the semblance of suspense. The genius of the fast-talking, catch-us-if-you-can financial world is there too in the high-speed witty dialogue of McKay and Charles Randolph’s script. Most of the dramatis personae are thin albeit lively caricatures of types but the screenplay supplies more detail on the personalities of two of the principals. Michael Burry, a qualified medical doctor, is not only a financial maverick but also a social loner, closed off from others since childhood by a glass eye and what looks like Asperger’s syndrome. Mark Baum seems conscientious to a fault. As a boy, he was, in his rabbi’s judgment, an excellent student of the Talmud except that he kept looking for contradictions in it. As a middle-aged man, Mark is trying and failing to come to terms with the recent suicide of his brother. It’s clever to give this backstory in just a couple of cases. It means there are people whose relative depth (it is only relative) can be aligned with the movie’s change of register in its closing stages. The Big Short is, for the most part, exuberantly sarcastic but it’s no surprise when, in due course, it tries to sound more seriously regretful about ‘ordinary’ people paying for the economic meltdown in 2007-08 and about the banks getting away with it.
The performances of Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling reflect the spirit of the film-making and, in the latter’s case, the spirit of financial opportunism too. Bale’s acting is perfectly aligned with the structure of The Big Short. His hyper-naturalistic playing has, to start with, the showoff quality that we’ve come to expect from him. His line readings and physical mannerisms amount to an accomplished turn. In the last few years at least, Bale has turned into an actor who, if he’s not grandstanding (The Fighter, American Hustle), is dead on the screen (The Dark Knight, Public Enemies). In The Big Short, however, he eventually achieves something quieter and more reflective without becoming a blank. I think it’s Bale’s best work so far (his best, at least, since his movie debut as the boy hero of Empire of the Sun). Ryan Gosling – well described by Anthony Lane in the New Yorker as ‘a lizard with sideburns’ in this role – makes a return to form, after his dull work in The Place Beyond the Pines and Gangster Squad (and Lost River, his mauled debut as a writer-director). Gosling is admirably crisp and precise. His apparent effortlessness functions as an expression of contempt for the well-groomed, miasmic creature that he’s playing – it’s not worth working too hard to embody Jared Vennett.
What Ryan Gosling achieves here – a paradoxical combination of incisiveness and superficiality – seems to be what Adam McKay’s direction is after most of the time, and often delivers. It’s also a main reason why McKay’s shift in tone late on isn’t convincing. In his concluding narration, Vennett tells us that those responsible for malpractice in the financial industry were brought to book and punished in the aftermath of the crash. As the audience’s jaw starts to drop, Vennett says, ‘Only kidding’. The film’s closing legends, as well as summarising what happened next to the main characters in the story, explains that next to no one went to prison for the scandals The Big Short has described and that CDOs are already back in business. You can’t help suspecting that Adam McKay, in professing regret for those whose lives were wrecked by the market collapse and suggesting that their winning bet disillusioned most of the big shorters, is only kidding too – as a film-maker if not as a human being. McKay’s direction is very pleased with itself: the movie lives off pace and slickness from which that but-seriously-now interlude detracts.
Very early in the film, I wondered how I was going to cope with what was already a heavy load of financial information that I found incomprehensible and, in itself, uninteresting. Adam McKay and Charles Randolph realise this is how much of the audience is liable to react. They soon have Jared Vennett explicitly acknowledge the fact and introduce ‘Margot Robbie in a bubble bath’ to help us out. Margot Robbie duly appears to explain, between sips from a glass of champagne, some of the jargon we’ve heard and that the crucial thing to remember, whenever we hear the word ‘subprime’, is that ‘it means shit’. Robbie’s appearance in The Big Short makes a kind of a sense because she first came to many filmgoers’ attention through her role in The Wolf of Wall Street. But she’s not the only celebrity to appear in McKay’s film as herself and, if there’s a similar aptness to the ‘casting’ of these others, I didn’t get it. The chef Anthony Bourdain appears in his kitchen to draw an analogy between making a gourmet dish out of leftovers and the make-up of CDOs (collections of poor loans packaged together and given inappropriate triple-A ratings by conflicted-cum-dishonest financial rating agencies). Later on, the pop singer Selena Gomez is part of a casino double act with the academic Richard Thaler, a behavioural finance theorist. (I get why he’s in the movie though I’m not sure if he counts as a celebrity.) These cameos are another example of the connection between the people on the screen and the man behind the camera. Jared Vennett, in presenting the celebs, functions as a master of ceremonies and thus as proxy for Adam McKay: Robbie et al wouldn’t be there if the director hadn’t asked them. Vennett’s breaking the fourth wall to address the viewer is the main but not the only way in which The Big Short steps outside itself for jocose explanatory purposes. The use of orientating news film and text defining further terms in the financial trader’s vocabulary are predictable enough; less so is an anatomical illustration on the screen that accompanies an explanation by Rafe Spall’s character to his colleagues of the problems of epididimitis.
Steve Carell’s speciality is blending humour and humanity – that was true, in a bizarre sense, even of his characterisation in Foxcatcher. Mark Baum is more familiar territory for him yet Carell gets to new emotional places in this role. As well as often being funny, he expresses a hectic, claustrophobic anguish that goes further than the description of Baum, by one of his colleagues, as unhappy when he’s not unhappy. Because Steve Carell’s Mark Baum is so thoroughly miserable, his sense of defeat at making vast amounts of money from the housing collapse is more convincing than, for example, the disillusionment of the greenhorn traders. It’s not the fault of the actors concerned that this irony feels contrived. As the pair’s adviser, Brad Pitt has the advantage of playing a character with an already well-developed understanding of the chicanery of the world in which he’s made his living. Pitt’s reserve and stillness are an effective counterpoint to the spiel and speed of the more typical specimens on display in The Big Short. The cast is strong throughout but, in what’s presented as a man’s world, three actresses register more strongly than the actors in smaller roles: Marisa Tomei, in her few scenes as Mark Baum’s sympathetic wife; Adepero Oduye, as a banker colleague of Baum’s; and, especially, Melissa Leo, in a scintillating cameo as a credit rating agency executive.
What makes the film entertaining to watch may also be part of what’s made it, in my case, quickly forgettable. But only part: I’m a financial imbecile too. I did as Margot Robbie instructed but keeping in mind that sub-prime and shit were synonyms was the extent of my understanding of the money stuff. I left the cinema trying to remember if the three-word name of a crucial product in the plot was mortgage … security … bonds. Even if it is, getting the words in my head was as far as I could go: their meaning was beyond me.
25 January 2016