The Big Short

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Award nominee The Big Short
"Christian Bale delivers his best performance for years as fund manager Michael Burry."

There's a Scots word, 'eidency', which refers to sedentary work and the work of the mind. Historically, it has often been used in contrast to industry, physical work aimed at producing a significant quantity of material things. Americans, of course, have no such linguistic distinction and find nothing odd in the term 'banking industry'. Between the 1980s Wall Street era and 2008, it grew to become the biggest 'industry' in America, and many of those working within it entirely lost sight of the fact that they were producing nothing at all.

At one point in this film, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is sitting in a pub in England frantically trying to secure a multi million dollar deal. "Are you a drug dealer or a banker?" a local man calls over from the bar. "Because if you're a banker, you can fuck off."

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It's difficult to tell a story about the events leading up to the crash that secures any audience sympathy for those involved. Adapting Michael Lewiis' book, Adam McKay draws on the talents of a strong ensemble cast to create a docudrama that places difficult individuals in context, making them easier to understand and intriguing to watch even if they're not always likeable. They're given a great deal more humanity than in other films on this topic, which makes it easier to understand why and how they came to do what they did.

Christian Bale delivers his best performance for years as fund manager Michael Burry, the first to identify that something was amiss in the mortgage market - something worth exploiting. Despite a couple of sly jokes connecting the two, he's miles away here from his previous financier character, American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, and there's a fragility to him that almost makes us want him to get away with it. Steve Carell, meanwhile, is warm and sympathetic as Mark Baum, still aware of the human aspects of what he's dealing with and fighting against the tide to change attitudes within the industry, but still tempted by opportunities to get rich quick. The macho culture they operate in is illustrated through casual jokes, a demonstration of sub-prime mortgage vulnerability explained through djenga, and increasingly frequent scenes of frantic shouting.

The Big Short risks bolstering the myth that nobody saw the crash coming, but perhaps it was harder for those directly involved in finance to see it because they were so close. For this reviewer, then producing copy for housing estates in Scottsdale, Arizona, it was clear for some years beforehand that things were beginning to go wrong. Scottsdale was the place where it all started to come apart. Houses there had become purely tradeable commodities, designed according to what stats said was popular with no real thought given to livability. Here it's Florida where we go, just briefly, to see the impact on a working class man and his family, his boy just settled in a new school, his landlord defaulting. For every 1% that unemployment rises, 40,000 people die, warns Mark. We are warned that if the crash happens there could be a million homeless Americans. By 2013, there were a million homeless Americans if one only counted those aged under 18.

Part of the strength of this film lies in the delicate way it handles this side of the equation, offering only glimpses, suggesting that to most of those involved it was invisible (though perhaps because they chose not to look). Where other films about finance, from Working Girl to The Wolf Of Wall Street, have portrayed investment bankers as super-smart, albeit ruthless and egotistical, this is the first piece of work that has really highlighted the stupidity of a lot of those concerned. It's not just a matter of abstracting the maths to the point where people are confused by their own bullshit (though McKay's script illustrates this rather charmingly); it's about people not having the basic good sense to read through the précis on the products they're trading. Then there are failures at a national level, such as the absence of any law preventing people from moving directly from jobs in regulation to jobs in the banks. These issues, too, are introduced subtly at first. There's a lot to pay attention to in a film that is always busy, so even without the presence of strippers it's easy to become distracted. The hints of peril accumulate in the back of the viewer's mind, building into a deep sense of foreboding.

Did I say strippers? Yes, indeed. It's one of the film's best meta-jokes; industry insiders will know that it's always easier to get a film financed if one can squeeze in a strip club scene, so The Big Short cheerfully reveals its willingness to sell out itself. It's also playing with the idea that people are put off films about banking because they contain so much jargon and are so po-faced - so we get assorted celebrities providing potted explanations to keep it easy for anyone to understand. Brilliant, fast-paced editing and inspired use of music adds to the effect. The sort of rap that rich white men listen to without taking in its pertinent messages is layered over already fragmented conversation, evincing the information overload many characters are experiencing. When the full horror of the situation finally manifests, we're in a cheesy Las Vegas casino listening to Sweet Child Of Mine.

The Big Short has already received award nominations in comedy categories. It's full of witty observations and is hilarious in places, but you may well hate yourself when you realise what you're laughing at - a final act of empathy. For all its playfulness, it's one of the darkest films of the year.

Reviewed on: 12 Dec 2015
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The story of the banking scandals behind the 2008 global economic crash.
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Director: Adam McKay

Writer: Adam McKay and Charles Randolph, based on the book by Michael Lewis.

Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Rafe Spall,

Year: 2015

Runtime: 130 minutes

Country: US

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