The Big Short (2016)
Finance movies can be a difficult negotiation. Some of them yield hardy investments, Margin Call as a recent example secured a robust portfolio while Wall Street set the entire loathsome ‘greed is good’ mantra in the cultural consciousness. Further afield in the early 1980’s there was Menagerie favourite Rollover, or more recently the sublime The Wolf Of Wall Street which is less a scathing condemnation of the financial sector than it is of the American dream in general, personified in one central loathsome leech. This is the crucial point, as a distinction should be made between films which use the Wall Street environment to wield larger critiques of our modern pharaohs and the moral void at the centre of our ever-expanding, ravenous consumerist destruction, and those which actually examine the arcane infrastructure of the system, the impenetrable argot and cultural temperature of the trading desks and coke scattered restrooms, the executive Manhattan suites and $2,000 an hour Bowery strip-joints. The Big Short is based on journalist Michael Lewis’s best selling expose of the catastrophic mortgage market bubble of the noughties, an Academy award nominated dramerdy which diversifies its character portfolio across a range of plot strands, to build a rich and fury inducing picture of a corrupt system that is utterly out of control. Negotiations start with fiscal savant Michael Burry (Christian Bale) as he identifies echoes of the 1930’s crash in the poisonous mortgage bundled sector, committing the entire resources of his investors and parent company on his precognitive prestidigitation. On the East coast a chance missed call by disgruntled analyst Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) leads a Morgan Stanley backed hedge fund to begin their own cautious investigations, headed by the consistently furious Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum and Vennett form a suspicious alliance as their reconnaissance unveils the radioactive instability at the industrial core, forcing them to almost regretfully bet against the prevailing financial winds, remaining confident that the all-powerful system will correct itself in its self-regulated, plutocratic form.
Even those locked out of the system have divined the inevitable, as two young investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) have amassed a small fortune by gambling on the unlikely movements of stocks and bonds. They persuade former Wall Street exile Ben Ricket (Brad Pitt) to shatter the portcullis of the financial castles through his contacts and networks, sharpening the final trident spire in place for a simultaneously amusing and horrifying take on the instability and greed of our modern civilisation. The difficult dissemination of complex insider information is superbly done, through fourth wall breaking asides and breathless canters through the secret infrastructure of the ‘street’, building a complex picture of the rarefied air of high finance that the politicians, regulators and even senior practitioners can barely manage to understand, let alone control. Some of these techniques are a little distracting, featuring director Adam McKay rifling through his Hollywood Rolodex to get some hot actresses to boost the oestrogen levels of what is almost uniformly a testosterone fest, a mirror to Wall Street’s constitution which incidentally has me interested in Equity which is premiering at Sundance this week.
There are cameos from Marisa Tomei as Mark’s wife, equipped with an extraneous sub-plot following his guilt over his brothers suicide, a vain and fruitless attempt to award these predators a sense of chivalry and righteous fury to a bunch of misfits who will profit gargantuanly from the collapse of the entire fiscal eco-system. This brings us to an inherent contradiction and the primary criticism of the film, that there is no-one to root for, that no-one functions as our ‘hero’ in The Big Short as these relative minnows in the churning oceans of finance are as odious and profit motivated as the faceless executives of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and all the rest – to which I say exactly and more specifically that’s the fucking point. It’s the system that’s fraudulent, the utterly insane ideology incepted in the 1980’s which has set the cancerous root, not necessarily the fault of the financial foot soldiers who are only obeying orders, the Ivy League drones who docily follow instructions where the worship of money is the only and absolute obliterating ambition. Within that shadow the film pulls off its major grift, the handsome leads as our surrogate with their belief in the system utterly inverted by the stupidity and greed of the monolithic banking behemoths, as this is where The Big Short unveils its real political coup. These traders at least play by the rules of the casino and understand the risks to reward ratio, only to have their faith murdered by a quotidian privilege that even these outliers had no idea was so corrupt. The public purse bails out the greed, immigrants and the poor scapegoated as the enemy and the source of all middle class ills, while the whole sick system has not only regenerated but grown more entrenched over the past decade.
Some of the films smaller affectations are a little on the nose, rendering one of the watch-dog rating agency representatives (a proficient cameo from Melissa Leo) with an eye condition so she is literally blind was more than a little heavy-handed, but there is so much energy coursing through the film that you forgive these small deviation, as a two hours investment scurries along in what feels like a fraction of the time. The filming style is all hand-held immediacy, all focus-racks and hyper-rapid montage patterns to secure an energetic sense of the time and place, a form that’s a little distracting and irritating to start with but gradually eases into the journey. Any ability to economically explain arcane financial instruments is an achievement in itself, there is a well orchestrated sequence in a Vegas casino (where else?) which unveils the destructive depths of the iceberg lurking beneath the visible peaks of the Collateralised Debit Obligations, these products the surface of a pecuniary void vast and fathomless, utterly and completely out of control. These products and systems are as intangible as the ethics that there manipulators lack, they hold absolutely no material or physical value whatsoever as opposed to, say, wheat or diamonds, fuel or components, the all-powerful free market allegedly dictating doctrine where no-one really has the slightest idea of what the hell is going on, with no more skill on display than literally throwing dice or praying on the turn of a card at a blackjack table.
The star sodden cast isn’t too distracting from the sober matters at hand, and Pitt and Gosling in particular seem happy to stand back and let some of the newer faces take equal screen time, with Carell emerging as the character lynchpin who channels the audiences disbelief and incompetent anger. Christian Bale’s nomination is as impenetrable as the dense spreadsheet he instinctively interrogates, he’s fine enough as a financial savant with the social anxiety and immaturity of someone on the lower scale of the Asperger’s register, but there are far more effective and memorable supporting roles which seem more apt for reward if you ask me – Del Toro in Sicarrio anyone? Adam McKay is a comedy director so there are plenty of laughs and absurd moments which keep the serious subject matter bouncing along, the ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding’ reactions which come thick and fast throughout the three narrative threads. The final stretch analysing the radioactive fallout of 2008 sees the humour is suspended as the tone turns particularly sour, with an emphasis upon the lack of accountability and absence of arrests, that no-one has paid any reckoning for the trillions lost, the tens of thousands of suicides, the hundreds of thousands of lost homes, jobs and starving families, with the terrifying coda that in 2015 the major banks started hungrily trading in the darkly hilarious named ‘bespoke tranche opportunities’, or clandestine CDO’s in a softer yet no less destructive form. With the world’s economists again yelling of an imminent collapse, comparing the 2008 sortie as a musket shot to the hydrogen bomb holocaust to come this is a timely film which might muster a small comedic respite as we huddle for warmth around spluttering campfires, gnawing on lukewarm rat meat following the next derivative doomsday – I’ll bet on that;