Starring: Christian Bale (The Dark Knight), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Ryan Gosling (Drive), Brad Pitt (Moneyball), Rafe Spall (Hot Fuzz), Hamish Linklater (Fantastic Four), Jeremy Strong (Lincoln), John Magaro (Carol), Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story)
Director: Adam McKay (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy)
Writers: Charles Randolph (Love and Other Drugs) and Adam McKay
Runtime: 2 hours 10 minutes
Release Date: 11 December (US), 22 January (UK)
Seeing a director drastically change genre isn’t a new thing. Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson went from gory horror films to iconic blockbusters, George Miller went from Mad Max to Babe: Pig in the City and back again, whilst Steven Spielberg and Danny Boyle flit between styles all the time. Regardless, seeing Adam McKay, director of comedies like Step Brothers and the Anchorman series, swap out goofy laughs for something more dramatic like The Big Short is still a shock. It’s not like McKay’s never shown signs of social commentary, considering how both Anchorman films do satirize the American news network in subtly biting ways, but this is the first time that side of himself has taken focus, and by doing so he’s somehow made one of the best films of 2015.
The story charts the lead-up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis through three intertwining stories, and the film does a great job of balancing these threads. Though tied together by a parallel goal, they each have their own unique flavour and show the effects of this impending crisis through different eyes. But just because McKay is focusing on serious subject matter doesn’t mean The Big Short is completely dull or po-faced or snooty. The film wants to be respectable, but it also wants to be accessible to a wide audience, and there’s no better way of being both educational and entertaining than through humour. There is a lot of financial jargon to follow, but everything is clearly explained to the audience in simple and entertaining ways. Whether through clever analogies, humorous asides, or characters directly explaining through the fourth wall, it genuinely educates you on how all these seemingly complicated systems are actually simple and flimsy, and soon the complicated mumbo-jumbo is easy to swallow. By doing this, it then allows you to focus on what’s actually going on and how broken the system was and still is. The film also gains a lot of credibility by never completely siding with our protagonists, nor does it paint them as manipulative hypocrites taking advantage the way The Wolf of Wall Street does. The Big Short’s ultimate goal is to show you that our financial crisis was caused by the ignorance and stupidity of the American banking system, and these people whose eyes we see it through did what they did mainly to prove to those bankers how ignorant and stupid they were for ignoring the signs.
The Big Short is so star-studded that I’m probably not going to even mention half of the famous faces the film has crammed into it, so let’s focus on our main players. Ryan Gosling acts as our main guide through the film as a participant in all three stories, and he excels as scheming market trader seizing the opportunity to make some money out of this falling tree; if the film has a Jordan Belfort equivalent, he’s the closest fit. Steve Carell is fantastic as the angry crusader trying to make a difference in yet another brilliant stretch for the comedy star; it’s hard to believe that he’s working under the same director here as the one who told him to say “I love lamp.” Carell’s underlings are wonderful played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong, each offering their own unique comedic flavour to the proceedings, whilst Brad Pitt’s understated performance as the jaded ex-banker helps ground the film when it gets too exuberant. But ultimately, Christian Bale steals the day as Michael Burry, the socially awkward hedge fund manager who discovers the impending crisis in the first place. Though not quite as transformative as some of his other performances, Bale does manage a convincing introverted weirdo and in turn manages to provide some of the film’s biggest laughs and harshest truths. There are a lot of cameos in the movie, some more important than others, but two in particular may rank among the best and funniest cameos in a movie ever; eat your heart out, Stan Lee.
The Big Short often feels more like a documentary than a fictionalised account, and a lot of that is thanks to the presentation. The cinematography uses a lot of loose handheld camera work, often wobbling around a scene whilst going in and out of focus. In most feature films, this would look amateurish but here it gives the film a stronger sense of verisimilitude; by making the film look more grounded in reality, it removes that aura that reminds you it’s not real. The editing is swift and crisp, keeping even the most jargon-heavy scenes feeling snappy and energetic, and there’s a lot of great use of pop culture imagery to remind ourselves of the world in the mid-2000s. That sense of era also permeates the eclectic soundtrack populated by recognisable songs from pop, rap and even heavy metal, often doing so to comedic effect. I won’t say much more, but the film probably has the best out-of-context use of the theme to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera ever.
The Big Short is not just a great film; it’s an important film. It’s the kind of view into such an important subject I wish we got more often. So many filmmakers would have told this story through some serious filter, believing that would be the only way to for it to be done justice. But Adam McKay understands that often the best way to explain a bad situation is to mock it, and by doing so has created an entertaining satire that doesn’t avoid the hard truths of the matter. Even if you have no understanding of how Wall Street or mortgages work, this film explains it to you in a hilarious way and will have you invested in its issues by the time credits roll. After such a dramatic shift for McKay, it might be hard to seem him return to directing Will Ferrell shouting ludicrous nonsense, but whenever he next puts out something like The Big Short again I’ll be sure to pay attention.
FINAL VERDICT: 10/10!