Review: The Big Short

Screen

In 2008, the financial crisis caused depreciation in investment of over forty per cent[1]– unemployment and bankruptcy followed as viscous circle of financial panic consumed the world economy. In this context, The Big Short’s Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) tells us that “for every one percent unemployment goes up, forty thousand people die”, a claim likely overstated, but very much in the vein of findings that correlate unemployment rises and suicides rates at a ratio of 1:0.79[2]. This merciless barrage of facts and figures, apart from providing a dense hundred words of reading, prompts an essential question: to what extent does the relevance of a film’s material lift the film itself? Well, as any hang gliding enthusiast will tell you, start high enough and you’re soaring, but try launching from a lower platform and you’re left jumping around in a field with very little to show for it.

The Big Short unfortunately falls into the latter of these scenarios. Adam McKay’s comic critique of the pre-crash financial world boasts the fantastically marketable names of Bale, Gosling, and Carell as it follows a few intrepid traders, who, perceiving its inevitable disintegration, take on the economic goliath of the American banking system, stopping every so often only to tell us that its all true- or not, as the case may be. However, this supergroup of a cast cannot prevent the film getting woefully lost in a satirical mire, stuck between attempts to deliver an informative, political message, and produce the kind of humour that has been the defining feature of the Anchorman director’s career. Serious observations such as that quoted from Pitt are smothered almost upon utterance by an upbeat musical transition or some attempts at witty discourse (which more often than not are devoid of any wit). What we’re left with amongst the stream of useless onscreen quotes and sniggering bankers, is pretty much one hundred and thirty minutes of the question ‘How did no one see this coming?’ smugly reiterated in innumerable circumstances with a repetitiveness that leaves little room for any meaningful satire.

Yes, unexpected turns from the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez provide a poignant and genuinely laughable comment on banking jargon, but even these soon become patronising. Steve Carell continues his McConaughey-esque metamorphosis, portraying the paradox of man trapped in the system even as he tears it down, assisted in part by McKay’s naturalistic, almost documentary-like, camera work, which reaches its full potential in anti-climax. However, another upbeat tune, a bit more superfluous on screen text, and the moment’s gone. It’s typical in a film that craves more than it can achieve, seeking a combination of emotional clout and piquant wit without the patience to properly develop either. Like a dodgy bond cobbled together by some investment banker, The Big Short is a confused bundle of satirical jokes and serious messages, education and the absurd- it may be the truth, but the result is a bit of a mess.

[1] The 2008 Financial Crisis: Institutional Facts, Data and Economic Research, Saki Bigio and Jennifer La’O, 2011, https://www0.gsb.columbia.edu/faculty/sbigio/papers/Crisis_Slide.pdf

[2] David Stuckler, Sanjay Basu, Prof, Mark Suhrcke, Adam Couttes, Prof Matin McKee, “The public health effect of economic crises and alternative policy responses in Europe: an empirical analysis”, in The Lancet, Volume 374, No. 9686, 2009, http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(09)61124-7/abstract