The documentary-style approach that defines the film-making style of The Big Short is part of what makes the feeling of the film so pertinent. With such an important topic, it’s natural that you would want to read into it and understand what made the housing market crash in 2007, but the problem is that even some of the world’s smartest investors didn’t see what was coming. If you feel lost as the film talks about ‘mortgage-backed securities’ and ‘sub-prime mortgages,’ don’t worry, because it goes about explaining it in a very interesting way.
Director Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys, Talladega Nights) has come back to deliver his first serious film, a very intellectual, albeit satirical, look at the economic crash of 2007/08. It’s told through a lot of hand-held camera, looking often like a mixture of a documentary and cut-away gags from a sit-com. The feel of familiarity, where we let the characters break the fourth wall and explain things to us is very important for retaining our attention and understanding in such a complicated circumstance is a refreshing way to tell this non-fiction story. Again, writer Michael Lewis has provided the true story narrative that supplies us with another really good Oscar-season film.
While there aren’t really any true ‘characters’ to this film, it does follow three men connected with the banking industry who invest in credit default swaps (bets against the payback of existing loans) when they figure out that the United States Housing Market has been propped up by packages of poor loan prospects called CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) that have no returns on investments, causing the increased buying of worse and worse loan debt that eventually destabilized the market. The first to notice it was a doctor turned investor Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an extremely intelligent businessman who also suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. The next to notice actually picked up where Burry left off, where our narrator and sleazeball Greg Lippmann (stated as Jared Vennett), played by Ryan Gosling, teams up with Steve Carell’s Steve Eisman/Mark Baum and his team to do the same thing. We watch our main characters battle through heckling and dropping of investor confidence before it turns out that they were very, very correct. Brad Pitt and a slew of other actors are involved as supporting roles.
With this happening, we basically get to see our favorite A-List Male Actors go toe to toe with the crooked, greedy, evil side of capitalism. Although the film is occasionally patriotic and does explain how the average person was hurt by the fraudulent banking that still goes on today, The Big Short is very much an indictment on that type of policy, on letting monetary policy run free and destroy the country. The fiscal response, and how it really hurt people, was not really shown, but the end scenes where things really bust, is terrifying and poignant. When the film needs to settle down from its constant motion, it does, and it does successfully. It’s both satirical and informative, and it works on a ton of levels, especially the unique style of comedic editing.
This same editing can also occasionally be the film’s biggest flaw. It’s so intent to have that constant energy to hold the audience’s attention, and even though the ‘if you don’t understand that, it’s fine because here’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain it..’ scenes really do work, the constant motion and purposefully hindered production make for a grouping of characters who we never really learn to love. Even though the characters take issue with the greediness of capitalism, we never really get to understand them, and in a film like this, getting to love the characters is pretty important. We’re horrified when Max Greenfield’s cameo says he gives out NINJA loans (No Income No Job Applicant), but we don’t really root for a character to stick it to him, and because we don’t bond with any of the characters, the film relies entirely on the subject material to rile your emotions up. Sometimes it did, and frankly, sometimes it didn’t. This very ‘meta’ strand of editing makes the film interesting and worth-watching, and it does have a solid Christian Bale and a really good Steve Carell in it that helps its quality.