The Big Short is a film about human greed and degradation. It’s a film about an eccentric, one eyed hedge fund manager, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) who sees the housing loan bubble burst before anyone else and decides to profit from it by shorting or betting against it. Its about a slickster, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who hears about these default swaps at a sleazy party and hard sells them for a hefty commission. It’s about a seething but righteous Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and his team, who get wind about it through a misplaced phone call, and join in, driven by revenge against the banks. Its about two young and naive fund managers Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Witrock) who stumble into the information and enter the rat race under the tutelage of a very ‘organic’ Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) who has retired from the game in disgust but knows how it’s played.
What makes this Wall Street film about the 2008 financial meltdown different from others is its unconventional presentation. The director adds colour to the monotony of men in suits by daring to use unconventional ways to explain financial jargon. The narrative is broken by hilarious cameos in which celebrities, playing themselves, define some of the complicated terms like subprime mortgages and collateralised debt obligations. Does all this make you feel bored or stupid? No, I am not asking you, Ryan Gosling posed this question to me as I was watching the film and proceeded to introduce the sultry Margot Robbie who explained the terms while taking a bubble bath. Cheeky yes, but also rare ingenuity!
The high profile stars live up to expectations and give excellent performances. Bale’s eccentricity seems as real as Carell’s smouldering contempt. Gosling’s smarmy portrayal of the conscience dead Wall Street shyster is matched with Brad Pitt’s brilliantly underplayed avatar as the disillusioned retiree. The naivety of his protégé is endearingly genuine too. But its the actors in small roles who shine and make the film what it is. The supercilious banker with his condescending smirk as he puts down the two neophytes, the over helpful assistant who smilingly tolerates Gosling’s ill treatment, Carell’s well etched team mates, the lady entrusted with credit-rating who has a vision problem, the sleazy home loan mortgage agents, an especially ruthless and repulsive bond trader, the ‘law -abiding’ tattooed tenant all excel in their craft. There are no small actors here, just small roles.
McKay, best known for directing subversive comedies accomplishes a great feat as he pulls out all his tricks, from dizzying hand-held camera moves, peppy dance numbers, quick shots of random people to pole dancers making the movie an exhilarating joy ride. Humour lightens up a dark tale of deceit by having characters break the fourth wall and talk directly to the viewer either to confirm what is happening in the film or to contradict it.
But the moral tide running beneath all the laughs is palpable. Five trillion dollars in savings and real-estate value is vaporised as the banks continue to act in an astonishingly ignorant or criminally abusive fashion, leaving millions of Americans jobless and homeless with global repercussions. As the protagonists stifle their disdain for the bond-market creeps, the moral ambiguities cannot be ignored, for they have invested in default swaps, which would pay off only if the market collapses.That it would lead to destruction of such mammoth proportion was probably not foreseeable but the human wreckage is their doing too.
A strong contender at the Oscars this year, this film based on a book by the same name can simultaneously outrage and amuse, entertain and educate, infuriate and fascinate and keep the viewer engrossed in a story filled with bond-trade babble. The Big Short, based on true events of an economic catastrophe is devastatingly funny. It will appeal to the average viewer because human greed is not limited to Wall Street and sometimes it’s better to laugh than cry.