The Big Short – Review ****

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Since the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 many films have sought to provide a semblance of an explanation, find a villain upon whom we can pin all our financial woes, and/or theorise what the future holds. 2010’s Academy Award winning documentary Inside Job was the first to tackle the complexity of the Great Recession. Now, eight years after the bubble has burst, Hollywood finally produces a mainstream film about one of the most disastrous economic downfalls in recent history.

The Big Short follows a collective of oddballs and misfits who foresee the magnitude of the imminent financial catastrophe. After recognising the volatility in the housing market, neurologist and hedge fund manager Dr Michael Burry (Christian Bale), brash and irascible Mark Baum (Steve Carell), arrogant bonds salesman Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), naive investors Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock), and their retired banker mentor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) decide to do what many deem the unthinkable; bet against the American economy.

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These plot threads effectively convey the endemic corruption within the financial markets. Baum’s exposure to Wall Street’s systemic ignorance and avarice is as compelling as it is infuriating, and, as he realises his inescapable complicity in it, depressing. In fact, one gains the impression that everyone is complicit. Even Rickert’s contemptuous holier-than-thou rhetoric is hypocritical; he deplores the status quo, yet helps his protégés accumulate large sums of cash. None of the characters actually try to stop the crisis, but simply line their own pockets. Are they any better than the banking system? That’s for the audience to decide.

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But the film is not all doom and gloom. Despite the superficially Serious Subject, director Adam McKay, better known for broad comedies like Anchorman and last year’s (abhorrent) Get Hard, wisely counteracts the banking doublespeak with humour. This ensuring the viewer is not overwhelmed with facts, statistics, and morally bankrupt people. Besides, when what really happened is so terrible – the collapse of the world economy – one has to laugh to maintain any sanity.

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Much of the comedy derives from the frequent breaking of the fourth wall. Cameos from Selena Gomez, TV chef Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie (in a possible snipe at the similarly themed but more problematic The Wolf of Wall Street) clarify complex concepts like synthetic CDO, subprime mortgages et al. by directly addressing the audience, humorously jarring with the faux-documentary aesthetic. When Charlie explains the biographical reality of how he and Jamie discovered Vannett’s plan, it highlights the film’s self-reflexive nature, and the borderline farcical nature of it all. The oscillation between fact and fiction also reflects the hyper-reality of contemporary banking, where truth and credibility are in short supply.

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The Big Short will provide answers, enrage viewers, and ensure those who are still unaware to take notice. Its striking faux-documentary visuals, the sporadic fourth-wall breaking structure, and its cutting between the three plot threads will keep viewers on their toes throughout.

The Big Short is playing in UK cinemas from 22nd January 2016.

 

Matthew Lee is an undergraduate student in the field of Film Studies at King's College London and a freelance film critic with keen interests in World Cinema, Cult Cinema and Silent Cinema.