“The truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”
Directed by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt.
Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (2016)
The Big Short (2015) takes something complicated like the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 and gives us an easy to understand, intense and suspense-filled drama that grabs us from the moment we see Steve Carell playing a serious role, highlighting his amazing skill as an actor.
The film is based on a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine and follows several investors who predicted the crisis and betted against the American economy. Dr Micheal Burry (Christian Bale) is an eccentric ex-neurologist who first predicts the collapse of the American mortgage market and uses the bank’s overconfidence against them to purchase credit default swaps at a fantastic rate. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), based on Geoff Lippmann, works at Deutsche Bank and is one of the first to understand Burry’s reasoning and decides to sell these swaps. Due to a stroke of good luck, Vennett ends up selling them to Mark Baum’s company; FrontPoint Partners. Mark Baum (Steve Carell), based on Steve Eisman, initially takes Vennett up on his offer due to his innate distrust of banks, but as he investigates the market further, he realises the extent of the fraud and buys every swap he can. Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are starting their own investment company and stumble upon Vennett’s analysis. With the help of Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) they also invest in these credit default swaps. It is through these key characters that the film holds our hand and takes us through the complicated mortgage system and exposes the corruption that would come to a climax in 2007.
The film is based on a true story and we are reminded of this with pictures and videos of events and people famous in 2005-2007. We see Britney Spears, Facebook, the first iPhone and US President George Bush Jr as a constant reminder of passing time but also that this film is based on real events that actually happened. These images are also a reminder of what was distracting the world from the teetering economy of the United States. Mark Baum even explains this to us:
“But it is a shit storm out here, sweetie. You have no idea the kind of crap people are pulling. And everyone’s walking around like they’re in a goddamn Enya video. They’re all getting screwed you know. You know what they care about? They care about the ballgame, or they care about what actress just went into rehab.”
The film begins with Vennett narrating the story, an indication that this complicated subject matter is going to be explained to us. This allows us to relax and enjoy the drama of the film as Vennett will be there to pick up the slack when we are out of our depths. The narration supports us through the story, explaining the characters to us and their backstories. It is a great use of this technique as it moves the plot along and as we have quite a few main characters here we do not have time to build appropriate and detailed backstories for them. For example the intro for Mark Baum;
“Mark Baum had built his career on never assuming anyone or any company was legit without proving it. When he was a kid he excelled at studying the Talmud in Yeshiva. Whatever… But one day his Rabbi told his mom why.”
We then have a very short scene with a slight sepia filter, to remind us we are in the past, a cliché, yes, but given the complicated content and easily recognisable technique is welcomed;
“Paul is a fine boy and Mark is an excellent student of the Torah and the Talmud.”
“Then what is the problem, Rabbi?”
“It’s the reason Mark is studying so hard. He’s looking for inconsistencies in the word of God!”
“So has he found any?”
Then Vennett’s narration expands upon his backstory;
“Later, Baum started his own fund on Wall Street. He had an amazing nose for bullshit and he wasn’t afraid to let anyone know when and where the bull had gone number two. But then a tragedy happened to Mark, and it turned his world view dark and ready to believe the whole system was a lie.”
This quick introduction gives us all the information we need to understand Baum’s motivations and personality. This happens for each main character as they are first seen on screen and enables the introductions to be over quickly and the plot to continue.
However, Vennett is both the narrator and a character in this story and therefore comes with his own personality. Vennett brings comic relief to the distressing and detail heavy content by constantly reminding us that he is too cool for these other people;
“Unfortunately, it’s in a place like this… which I would never be. I never hung out with these idiots after work, ever.”
This obvious bias in the narration, and that Vennett is talking directly to us down the barrel of the camera and breaking the fourth wall, reminds us that this a dramatisation of events and is not a perfect truth. Vennett continues to obsess with the impression he is making, trying to distinguish himself from the other characters;
“While the whole world was having a big old party, a few outsiders and weirdos saw what no one else could. Not me. I’m not a weirdo. I’m pretty fucking cool.”
However, Vennett is just as strange as everyone else;
“Do you smell that? Do you smell that? I smell money!”
We know that we cannot trust this narrator. He will sell us out to the highest bidder, but as this is a story where Vennett also makes a lot of money and no one else is offering to take the reins, we have to take him at his word.
The Big Short also explores other methods to ensure we understand the complicated aspects of the content. It uses dictionary definitions that appear over the image to define financial terms that are mentioned by the characters. This stops the audience from leaning over and whispering ‘Hey, what’s that mean?’, maintaining our attention.
It also uses famous people talking directly down the barrel of the camera to explain difficult financial concepts in easy to understand terminology. Firstly, Margot Robbie is in a bubble bath, breaking the forth wall, to explain how mortgage bonds work. This is the perfect example of using nudity or the illusion of nudity during a scene where there is nothing but dialogue to maintain the attention of the male audience. It’s a gross sexualisation of female actresses, but it works. Sex is needed to sell this first introduction as the audience is not yet wrapped up in the story, but as the plot continues the film trusts that you are sufficiently interested that you do not need this aid anymore.
We are then introduced to Anthony Bourdain who explains collateralised debt obligation (CDO). Thankfully he is not in a bubble bath, but instead uses food to explain this difficult concept in easy to understand metaphors such as fish going bad over time.
We then have Richard H. Thaler PhD, the father of behavioural economics, and Selema Gomez at a casino. We have someone who is not recognisable but who’s opinion we should trust explaining as they are an expert and also someone that we do recognise as audiences do not always trust the experts. They explain synthetic CDOs via a hand at a Black Jack table. By using these three different methods, the narration, the dictionary definitions and these short cutscenes, it keeps the content understandable and stops the audience from feeling outclassed or patronised by the film.
Characters within the film itself continue to break the forth wall to explore the authenticity of the film and create comic relief from all the financial jargon. This is seen when Vennett introduces the person (not seen as a coworker or an equal) that does his math;
“His name’s Yang. He won a national math competition in China! He doesn’t even speak English. Yeah, I’m sure of the math”
“Actually, my name is Jiang and I do speak English. Jared likes to say it though because it makes seem more authentic. And I got second in the math competition.”
We also see Shipley break the fourth wall to explain how they actually found out about the housing bubble;
“Okay, so this part isn’t totally accurate, you know. We didn’t find Jared Vennett’s housing bubble pitch in the lobby of a bank that rejected us. The truth is, um, a friend had told Charlie about it, and I read about it in Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.”
And again Vennett breaks the fourth wall when Baum answers a phone call from his wife while calling out the mortgage system to remind us again this is a true story;
“Mark Baum really did that. When we were here in Vegas, he did that. He said that, he took the call.”
The film uses comic relief to maintain the audiences attention to provide relief not from tension, like we normally see in dramatic films, but from the financial content. We have Dany Moses (Rafe Spall), a part of Baum’s team, explaining about his enlarged epididymis – a part of the testicles;
“… lump on my ball. and I go in for a scan. Turns out that I have a very large thing called an epididymis. Which is a thing that goes around the ball and is like a sac underneath.”
The film even draws this and shows us what an inflamed epididymis looks like. The Big Short is not only teaching us about the world economics, it also teaching us about testicular anatomy. As the audience we get a breath of fresh air from the financial content and then we are ready to go again. This is seen again when everything looks like it is going to go under but that the people who were betting against the American economy look like they won’t actually be able to cash in. The film shows us Ben Rickert trying to sell $200 million dollars worth of swaps in the Black Horse, an English pub, while on holiday;
“Yeah I hardly got cell phone or Wi-Fi service. I’m trying to sell $200 million worth of securities. In a pub. It smells like sheep.”
The Big Short is not just a well thought out piece, the acting is also absolutely superb and truly makes the film. Firstly, Christian Bale plays this incredibly smart, socially awkward doctor turned fund manager. He awkwardly chats to himself, wears t-shirts, cargo shorts and no shoes to work. He struggles with social interacts which is portrayed perfectly when he tries to compliment a potential employee;
“That’s a nice haircut. Did you do it yourself?”
He does not understand that what he has just said could be an insult, but can tell from the look on the employees face that he has said something incorrect. Christian Bale’s reaction really encapsulates that embarrassment of when you know you have said something insulting without meaning it and try to mend any offences.
His glass eye is also amazing. I am assuming this is the work of Lola FX which did the special effects for this film. It is subtle so as not to steal the show from Bale but it is still there in every scene, just off centre with the pupil always just a little to enlarged in comparison to his ‘real’ eye.
Next we meet Steve Carell. I do not really enjoy Carell’s more comedic roles as they are usually too slapstick for me, and honestly seeing that he was starring in this film would usually immediately turn me off. However I now believe that he should have always taken serious roles because in this film he absolutely blew me away. It is Carell’s third dramatic role and he does it so well I am going to seek out his other dramatic works. It really highlights his skill as a well-rounded actor. I honestly think that without the skill of both Bale and Carell in these difficult roles the film would not have worked. The fine line it draws between comedy and drama would have fallen further into the comedy and would have made a mockery of both Baum and Burry.
Thankfully, the film does not mock the socially inept. Both Burry and Baum have awkward interactions with those around them, but are shown as very competent, over and above those that work at the bank. They are also shown to have positive relationships with their co-workers and families. Burry has a very positive relationship with his family, receiving text messages of love throughout his day. Baum also has a very positive relationship with his wife, even if it is pressured by the suicide of his brother. He even takes a phone call from his wife in the middle of an important seminar where he is calling out the speaker and says;
“No, I’m not doing anything right now. How are the kids?”
Baum also has a positive relationship with his co-workers, where one is even said to work for him because;
“He worked with Baum at a previous firm and couldn’t figure out why no one listened to Baum. The guy with all the good ideas.”
This is an important and very mature aspect of the film as it sends the message that people who struggle with social interactions are not less able to do their jobs or ultimately to be happy.
Throughout The Big Short we are constantly reminded that this film is based on a true story. Contributing to this we have the images of 2007, the breaks in the fourth wall and the explanations as to what actually happened, and most powerfully, the real broadcasts of the devastation that America went through during the Global Financial Crisis including the handmade tents that people were living in. The film creates one character to represent the people impacted the most by this crisis; a renter in Florida. He lives in a mostly empty housing estate and is renting a house where the owner filled out his mortgage application in the name of his dog and was over 90 days delinquent, despite the renter keeping up with paying his rent;
“Seriously man, am I gonna have to leave? Cause my kid just got settled into school, man.”
He is then later seen living out of his car with the rest of his family.
The true impact of the crisis is emphasised by a few powerful lines delivered by Ben Rickert when scolding Geller and Shipley;
“You just bet against the American economy.”
“Fuck, yeah, we did! Fuck yeah!”
“Which means.. which mean if we’re right…If we’re right, people lose jobs, people lose homes. People lose retirement savings. People lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to a number. Here’s a number. Every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die. Did you know that?”
This is a film about those that saw the financial crisis coming, but it does not forget the millions of people in America drastically impacted by it and ultimately those that will be impacted the most:
“I have a feeling that in a few years people are gonna be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”
There is a little messy film work in a scene when Baum is talking to a CDO manager, which unfortunately detracts from one of the most important scenes in the film. The intention is to recreate listening in on a secret conversation, along with close cropped and dirty shots (lots of blurred heads in the foreground), however the camera moves so much it is quite distracting. I do not, however, feel this is entirely necessary. The CDO manager, like the mortgage brokers earlier, do not see the need to keep their gains from the system a secret. Rather, they are bragging about it, therefore recreating the idea of a secret meeting is not need. I will say though that the juxtaposition of the casino environment with the very serious collapse of the economy is striking. There is a laugh track in the background playing throughout the scene and it is cut with scenes of people enjoying the casino and the cooking of fancy food, resembling the peak of everyone enjoying themselves and having a great time. Baum, however, is realising the world is going to end, but no one around him has realised yet and is still thinking they are going to make an insane amount of money. In the next scene when they are leaving the casino Nicholar Britell’s Redemption at the Roulette Table is haunting playing, signally the time of no return.
The Big Short is a fantastic drama that aims to educate rather than depress its audience. It never takes itself too seriously even though the subject matter is very intense and it has a fantastic cast who really carry the film through. I highly recommend it for your Friday Night Film Night!