Movie review: The Big Short - A fool's guide to the big crash
Adam McKay's witty satire takes on the economic downturn
If you feel mildly dizzy or nauseous at any point during this article, that won't be entirely the fault of my zippy prose style. Because Adam McKay's commendably original and wildly ambitious film The Big Short sets itself the mammoth task of investigating the underlying causes of the 2007 financial crisis through humour. Eight years on from that spectacular shit-storm, most of us if we're honest still haven't much of a clue what it was all about, apart from the fact that those vested interest bully boys in the EU and the IMF made us poor fools pay for the sins of our banks.
How many of you, for instance, remember eight or nine years on what a sub-prime mortgage is? If not, fear not, because Mr. McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph are here to clear it all up for you. Well, sort of.
The Big Short is based on real events and a best-selling book by Michael Lewis, and tells the stories of the few far-sighted analysts who realised that the US property market was a house of cards, and decided to bet against it. Christian Bale is perfectly cast as Michael Burry, an eccentric and socially disastrous California hedge-fund manager who in 2005 begins investigating the practice of sub-prime lending. He quickly discovers that American banks and brokers have been handing out large loans and mortgages to people who would never normally have access to credit.
Customers with bad credit histories, no jobs or savings have been given the means to buy homes despite their uncertain futures. These sub-prime loans have been bundled into mortgage-backed securities that also include good loans to disguise the bad ones, and are hopelessly overvalued. But Burry reckons that once the overheated housing market slows down, the sudden rush of foreclosures will cause financial chaos. So Burry, to the horror of his shareholders, decides to pour all his hedge fund's money into betting against an apparently healthy property market.
Meanwhile, in New York, a sleazy Wall Street trader called Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) has also realised that a crash is coming, and that even big banks like Goldman Sachs and Bear Stearns are going to be badly burned. He persuades an angry and disillusioned hedge-fund manager with connections to Morgan Stanley called Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to back his credit default swap scheme, which Vennett is convinced is going to make them all a fortune.
A couple of naive young garage band traders have a similar idea, but all of them will be confused when the property market starts to fail and the rating agencies refuse to lower their assessment of loan packages they know full well are 'dog-shit', to use that well-worn Wall Street phrase possibly coined by Gordon Gekko.
That summary might make The Big Short sound dry, and worthy: in fact it's anything but. Mr. McKay's previous credits include Anchorman, and some of that film's crazy energy has happily infected this one. The writer/director is determined no one will fall asleep during his movie, and uses Ryan Gosling's amusingly oily Jared Vennett as an interfering and sometimes undercutting narrator. Even the necessary pauses to explain sub-primes and MBSs are done with a witty flourish - at one point Margot Robbie reclines in a bubble bath while giving us the benefit of her no-doubt extensive financial expertise.
Cleverly, you end up rooting for these far-sighted cynics who are about to make themselves a fortune - until you remember that their good luck will bring misery to millions. Brad Pitt appears as a disillusioned former trader who rebukes two young protégés when they start celebrating as the housing market fails. But despite some excellent ensemble work from actors like Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong, it's Steve Carell who dominates with a performance that perfectly blends outrage and confusion. And isn't that how we all felt?
The Big Short (15A, 130mins) 4 stars