28 January 2016

The Big Short review

The basic concept of The Big Short (the collapse of the American housing market) is one that will instantly turn a lot of people off, and that's understandable. Mortgages are not things that people associate with thrilling film-making, something which when combined with the complex terminology surrounding the topic means that most people simply don't give films like The Big Short a chance. And that's a real shame - because what we have here as a film that not only overcomes the natural difficulties of making a movie about the financial sector entertaining, but actually manages to inform you about how the greed of American bankers created a near worldwide recession at the same time. And it does that without feeling pretentious.

It does this by telling us the story of the people who saw it coming, starting with hedge fund manager Michael Burry, who was the first to spot that the market is built on a foundation of unstable loans. Realising that he can make money off this knowledge, Michael buys mortgage bond shorts and waits for the market to crash, which he predicts will happen in the first half of 2007 and make him billions. When several other people get wind that someone is betting against the US economy, they investigate and like Michael realise that the housing market is on the brink of collapse.

Directed by Adam McKay (most well known for his Will Ferrell led comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy or Step Brothers), The Big Short is naturally a very different beast to what he's done in the past, but McKay makes the transition from pure comedy to something a little more grounded (but not by much) quite well. He has a handle on tone that has to appreciated, knowing when to allow the film to be funny and when is has to take on a more sober tone. At the same time, there is a real sense of style running throughout The Big Short, most obviously in the directorial quirks that help make it feel so unique. For example, take the way in which The Big Short explains the more difficult to understand financial lingo and concepts - the narrator introduces a real-life celebrity playing themselves and simply has them explain the thing in question to the audience in simple terms. It's funny and entertaining and a bit weird, sure, but more importantly it actually allows the audience to understand what is happening, so it serves an important purpose too.

The characters we follow are interesting ones played by great actors, and their roles in both the film and the housing market crash itself are varied enough to keep things interesting. I presume most people will be drawn towards Steve Carrell's portrayal of the socially-oblivious hedge fund manager Mark Baum as the stand-out role (we all love it when a comedic actor succeeds in more dramatic work), but the highlight for me was Ryan Gosling as the egotistical mortgage trader Jared Vennett. Vennett is both a character in The Big Short and its fourth-wall breaking narrator, and he's pretty much the best part of the film - a sleazy, self-satisfied, smug piece of shit, but also hugely captivating and responsible for the films biggest laughs and its most memorable moments.

There isn't much that The Big Short does wrong, other than one minor issue caused by its adherence to "the facts", the way in which it tries to be as accurate to the real life events as possible. It's a noble goal and one the film does adhere to (even calling itself out when it differs from the actual events for simplicities sake at one point), but it requires so many main characters to tell the story accurately that the film does end up feeling unfocused at times. Many of the characters we follow don't have anything to do until certain points, but are used throughout the film regardless - take Michael Burry, for example, who although being the one who discovered that the crash was coming in the first place actually doesn't have a lot to do with the real thrust of the story after that, and never even meets any of the other main characters. I can't help but feel that The Big Short might have been better off merging him with another character in order to better tell the story and reduce the running time, which feels much longer than it actually is.

But overall I really liked The Big Short, an innovative film that is entertaining while still having something to say. I think the biggest praise I can really give to The Big Short is that it doesn't just feel like a tamer version of  2014's The Wolf of Wall Street, quite impressive given the similarities in tone and topic area (similarities that make me suspect that The Big Short only exists as it is because of The Wolf of Wall Street). Either way, it's clear that this kind of material really suits McKay, and I'm looking forward to seeing where he goes from here - I'm sure that as long as he is this interested in whatever comes next then it will be every bit as fascinating. It's just good, interesting film-making at the end of the day, a stylish film backed up by some real substance - in short, exactly the kind of film that deserves your attention.

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