Review: The Big Short

Jack Whitehead 30 January 2016

Unless you were hibernating in 2008, you will be aware that markets crashed, bankers left the Wall Street trading floor with their heads hanging, and an American housing crisis spiralled out of control, decimating the global economy. Thousands were left homeless and millions became unemployed – hardly fitting inspiration for a comedy film; Steve Carell describes the plot as the basis for a “horror movie”.

The Big Short however is better described as a dark, comedy-disaster film which follows outsiders in the banking world who predict the impending doom of the housing market and inevitably profit from it.

Based on Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010), Adam Mckay’s film strikes a chord by highlighting not only the ignorance, but also the complete idiocy of bankers blind to the incredibly unstable system for which they were responsible.  The stellar cast includes Christian Bale who is Oscar-nominated for his performance as Michael Burry, a heavy-metal listening, socially awkward recluse who bets against the housing market having uncovered the banks’ irresponsible lending. 

The real 2016 Oscar snub however is Steve Carell, who shines as Mark Baum, a morally conscious and conflicted hedge-fund manager, full of pent up anger and frustration. Always on the verge of exploding, Baum resents the banker stereotype – bold, brass and big-headed – presented in the film as the reality. Yet Baum finds himself caught up in an industry he despises.  

Although the film’s opening does not appear promising, stay for the ride. Initially you find yourself bombarded with cut shots to famous brands, Mark Twain quotations and so much mumbo-jumbo that it’s easy to regret not doing a sensible subject like Economics. It soon becomes clear that this is all part of the crude and cruel joke – no-one really knows what a “subprime bond” or a “CDO” is, not even the bankers creating them.

Many of the jokes are delivered by celebrity cameos, such as Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, sipping champagne, explaining subprime bonds. But none of the analogies make much sense as she concludes, when you hear subprime bonds, think “s**t”. Though by the time Selena Gomez appears at a casino table to explain CDO’s, this joke has worn thin. And of course a film about an economic crisis would not be complete without a Jenga demonstration…

The film’s greatest success is the directing. McKay packages numerous subplots into one huge narrative without losing the viewer. There are enough jokes to overshadow the morally dubious aspects of the film. Although it does not share in the glamour of The Wolf of Wall Street, the outsiders you root for to outwit the high end bankers profit off the devastation of millions. The Big Short mirrors the big joke that was the housing crisis.

Having just won the Producers Guild of America’s highest film award, it seems that The Big Short, like the economic crisis, could prove a huge shock winner at the Oscars. This film will leave you satisfied, but with a bitter aftertaste.