Everyone has something they love about movies, even the most unbiased critic in the world. And while several of mine have come up, I think it’s high time I brought up another one: Esoteric financial chicanery. The Enron scandal, the South Sea Bubble, the 2008 financial crisis, the Mississippi Scheme, about a dozen other ones, these are things that capture my attention and imagination. I’ve never been able to explain why properly, but it’s just something that I love.
As a result, I tend to be somewhat biased towards films that examine these events, from serious minded documentaries (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), to sharp dramas (Margin Call) to even weird comedies (The Wolf of Wall Street). And while my opinion shouldn’t come as a surprise, since anyone reading this should already know that I named this the best movie of 2015 last week, The Big Short is absolutely one of the best films on financial chicanery I’ve seen in years.
The plot is devoted to a rotating series of protagonists, all of whom recognized that the housing market, despite being supposedly rock solid, was about to collapse, and shorted it. The first, but arguably least important, is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a strange and anti-social hedge fund manager, who recognized as early as 2005 that the collapse is coming simply though obsessive analysis of the subprime mortgage data.
He goes to New York, intent on betting against the real estate market. His, at the time, bizarre decision to short a supposedly untouchable market, draws the attention of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) a trader who also recognizes the signs and wants to short the market. He, through an accident, enlists the help of Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a crusading and constantly enraged hedge fund manage. At the same time, two young investors, Charlie and Jamie (John Marago and Finn Witrock) find out about the short and recognize the collapse is coming, and enlist their friend, a former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them short the housing market.
If it sounds like I’m skimming pretty hard, I am. The movie’s plot is so odd and so technical, that it’s hard to find a good middle point between “Here are the characters, watch how they go,” and “Here is an incredibly detailed plot rundown.” But if you’re worried about not understanding what’s going on, don’t. The film anticipates the issues you might have, and immediately elects to solve it.
How does it solve it you might ask? Through obliterating the fourth wall. The film opens with Ryan Gosling speaking directly to the audience and continues from there with regular addresses to the audience. At several points they even cut straight to an actor or other celebrity explaining the more complicated concepts in broad metaphors.
If this all sounds like it might be kinda weird, it is. But it’s a good weird, a unique weird that takes an offbeat and complicated story and makes it accessible and understandable. It also makes it funny, and engaging, not just to people like me, who have a taste for esoteric finance but to a broader audience. I saw it the weekend it hit, in a packed theater, and everyone was reacting, laughing at the comedic moments or gasping at the big reveals. Or, to be honest, growling when the film gets serious towards the end.
That is the final element in what makes this, in my opinion, such a truly great film. It is at various points a comedy, a serious drama, and a fiery fist pumping polemic, and all three of those things could easily undercut each other. But due to some brilliant direction and one of the best screenplays of the year, it manages to blend them perfectly together, and each element makes the others stronger. The comedic elements keep the technical stuff understandable, the drama keeps you invested in the characters and the polemic stuff…just makes you angry.
All of this is anchored by one of the best casts of the year. Bale hasn’t been this good since The Fighter, Gosling since Drive, Carrell since…EVER. I believe, and I’ll stand by it if pressed, that this is the best performance of Steve Carell’s career. He is, in many ways, the main character, the one who goes through an emotional arc, and the one tasked with being the on screen avatar of the audience’s anger. It’s a great performance, one with a lot of memorable moments and intensity. I’m hoping, between this and Foxcatcher, that we’ll get to see a lot more of Steve Carell the dramatic actor.
That’s not to say he’s alone up there. Ryan Gosling is, as I said, excellent as the slimy, morally bankrupt character, who teams up with the more moral characters purely out of convenience. Bale finds a strange but compelling way to play his character (who has asperger’s in real life, something that is never stated in the film, but is shown subtly). Pitt is more minor, but he makes good use of his screen time, as a paranoid bank-hating former banker, who seems to hate that he’s right. Even Marago and Witrock manage to put in memorable moments in their performances (it must be said, Marago has one of my favorite fourth wall breaks). Between this, The Martian and Steve Jobs, I really wish the Oscars would just get an Oscar for Best Ensemble off the ground.
It’s hard to pick out specifically good moments to talk about; The screenplay is one of the best of the year, the direction and editing are frenetic and memorable, the soundtrack well used and engaging. It’s one of those rare movies that gets everything right. There are still a few movies of 2015 I haven’t seen that I want to, but I remain firm in my conviction that The Big Short will remain my best movie of the year. Do not miss it.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and if you want a crazy financial bubble to read about, look up Tulip Mania. It’s completely insane.
– one of the best screenplays of the year
– fantastic ensemble cast
– great direction
– unique ways of getting information across
– might be kind of technical if you’re not paying attention
– I guess if you don’t want to leave the theater angry, you should avoid it