The Big Short (2015)
***Spoilers do not apply***
Another film watched when curled up feeling ill. One thing about being unwell, you get the chance to catch up on films.
This highly-acclaimed film is about real events, and some real-life people too, although some names are changed. It is not a fictional story, as it is based on what happened in the US financial markets leading up to the world-wide crash of 2008. Star-studded, loved by critics, and made a lot of money at the box office. Has to be worth a watch, surely?
You have to really pay attention to this film. It is all going on. Narration, talking to camera, flashbacks, and a multitude of characters that have to be remembered, and kept up with. Financial terms, wheeling and dealing at all levels, double-crossing and betrayal. Oh, and more financial terms. At one stage, I thought only Wall Street Traders and Bankers might have a clue about what was happening. But the film-makers realised that too, so used an unusual device to explain things, in layman’s terms. They used real celebrities, playing themselves. They talk to the audience directly, giving an alternative perspective on those machinations. I wasn’t sure whether I thought this was amusing, helpful, or just plain patronising. I’m still not sure which it was.
To review this film in any detail would take a 5,000-word essay, and I am not about to do that, so don’t worry. The basic story is that a very few financial whiz-kids realised that the US housing market was on the verge of collapse. This was mainly due to the banks selling bonds, based on the value of the mortgages they held. When the demand for the bonds outstripped the amount of mortgages available, the banks went to crazy lengths to increase their mortgage holdings. This involved lending money to unemployed people to buy houses, or lending money to people who had no credit rating at all. The guys in the know soon worked out that once the mortgage holders began to default on payments, the banks would go bust, and the US economy (and world economy) would follow.
With me so far? That’s the easy bit.
So we follow some of these financial gurus as the reality dawns on them, and they begin to gamble huge fortunes against the mortgage bonds. They are ‘Shorting’ those bonds, betting the housing market will fail, and receiving odds from the banks against that happening. Hence the title of the film. Almost nobody believes them of course. and the banks are happy to take their money, whilst laughing at them behind their backs. From 2005 until 2007, these different groups or individuals ride the storm of the ups and downs of the property market. They discover that the SEC and the big banks are in collusion, and there are times when they nearly go under, making the payments based on their gambles. But they stick to their guns, and by the end of 2007, they are of course proved right.
Enough of that, what about the film? Well, here I am, eating my words. Ryan Gosling is outstanding, and barely recognisable, as money-man Jared Vennett. He abandons his usual moody say-nothing style, and delivers a powerhouse performance. Steve Carrell, who I usually can’t stand to look at, is a revelation in a very serious role, as the deeply-troubled and moralistic Mark Baum. He should do ‘serious’ more often. In fact, all the time. Christian Bale does his ‘method thing’, playing the socially-inept but financially brilliant Michael Burry. Then we get Brad Pitt, channeling his Robert Redford impersonation as the reclusive former banking genius who has put it all behind him for a self-sustained life in the backwoods. He does it pretty well, too. And everyone else is good. Very good.
The film delivers genuine tension, as real events like the Goldman Sachs crash are very well portrayed. Will our whizz-kids lose everything, or come out on top? We find out, and we might even end up caring too. (I didn’t) But it asks a lot of the viewer. A good memory, completely undivided attention, and a tolerance of the breaking of the ‘fourth wall’, which happens so often, it stops being noticeable. Then there is the flashy style. Pop video inserts, news broadcast inserts. Jumps, cuts, flick-backs, and ‘placement’ of other events and objects, or captions to let us know what year it is. Lots of fast-talking, a huge amount of swearing, and a great deal of shouting too. We are left under no illusion that this is a ‘smart’ film. It knows it is, and it wants us to know that too.
But maybe it’s not quite as smart as it thinks it is.
You decide. Meanwhile, here’s a trailer.