By: Samar Khan
As avid readers of our burgeoning film blog here at The Film Lawyers – I would like to believe such ardent fans exist- may recall, our review of the absolutely wonderful Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was full of praise for the way the A-list (by British standards) ensemble cast lived up to its billing.
Now, 3 years later and concerning entirely different subject material, we have the North American A-list cast that dreams (Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling) and jokes (Steve Carell) are made of. Everyone reading this may recall that massive worldwide financial meltdown in 2007-08 that effectively destroyed the economy of almost every country in the world; this is a film about the subprime mortgage crisis that led into said meltdown and the story of the men who saw it coming but were not taken seriously. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the review for The Big Short.
To provide a brief and spoiler-free synopsis of the film that is a tad more descriptive than just “financial meltdown,” the film’s plot centers around the housing market in the 2000’s which was essentially existing within a bubble; this means that prices kept going up alongside loans while simultaneously everyone and their mother was buying for themselves a new home. The problem was, nobody ever thought about looking below the happy exterior of “hey, everybody is happy” and at the dark underbelly of this bubble. You see, as Ryan Gosling perfectly explained in the film (more on him below), nobody gave so much as a second glance towards the bad loans that were approved, repackaged, resold, rinse and repeat until there was a figurative ocean of credit with nary a surface to support it. Add all of this up together and it resulted in what the world experienced less than a decade ago; the entire ocean of credit just collapsed as the economy fell into a coma. The movie focuses on the certain people that managed to see that such an ocean of bad credit truly existed and thus decided to bet against the housing market. Suffice it to say, Ryan Gosling will explain it to you far better than I can, which is a major testament to the film’s ability to make even the most confusing jargon understandable to the average filmgoer.
The film was based on the book of the same name and was written by Michael Lewis, a name our audience may be familiar with as his works have been adapted into a renowned pair of cinematic flicks, Moneyball, and The Blind Side.
Adam McKay was the man that adapted Lewis’ vision to the big screen for us and he came THIS close to pulling off the kind of nearly flawless movie that stays with viewers long after they leave the cinema. A cursory glance at his IMDB credits shows that this is his first feature film not starring Will Ferrell, which indicates that the man knows his humour but may be a little rough around the edges concerning the dramatic side of storytelling. That was on display here, as the comedic moments were perfectly captured by the auteur, and served to lend a very lighthearted tone to moments that would otherwise make viewers feel somber about how bad the financial meltdown was. His decision to incorporate celebrity cameos (no surprises but a certain celebrity Chef and a gorgeous former Disney teen pop star are the major names that pop up randomly) to simplify the most complex sounding jargon into easily understandable terms was an inspired move. It simultaneously “dumbed” down segments of the plot for those unfamiliar with the world of finance (which is 99% of us, if we are being honest) while adding extra screen time and witty material for Ryan Gosling’s uber-narcissistic and condescending (yet utterly awesome) Jared Vennett.
It’s not a stretch to say that Gosling is the highlight of the film, pulling off the slicked back hairstyle and demeanour of the cliché Wall Street executive that people love to hate. His interactions with his assistant, Jared, are a particular highlight for they put his relentless condescension of those around him on display and illustrate his acting chops. As someone that has appreciated him in comparatively quieter roles ala Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines, it was both refreshing and shocking to see him speak as much as he did. If there was a flaw with his character, it concerns his relative lack of screen time compared to his big-name counterparts. While it served to elevate nearly everyone one of his scenes as the audience eagerly anticipated his arrival, the vast amount of time he was off-screen meant that his absence was felt.
Gosling is accompanied by Brad Pitt (he of every lady’s dreams), Christian Bale, aka Batman for the modern audience that grew up with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and finally Steve Carell, whom we all know and adore for his loveable run on The Office. There’s more to the cast than just these four, but it speaks to the quality of these four that the others in the film (Hamish Linklater and Finn Wittrock notably) are overshadowed despite turning in very commendable performances. Pitt plays the grizzled former trader that provides advice to Wittrock and John Magaro, completely overshadowing their value to the story by bellowing about the effect the meltdown would have on the average citizens, something his young compadres could not comprehend.
Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, the quirkiest physician ever seen on the big screen; his character runs an investment fund, works in shorts and without shoes, is completely anti-social and yet has the brilliant mind capable of figuring out the housing market would collapse. Bale has developed a reputation for playing those quirky or odd type of characters and for good reason; there is arguably no one better at taking the most bizarre or coke-addled of people (The Fighter fans will appreciate this) and making them someone the audience can instantly understand and relate to.
Carell plays Mark Baum, an idealist money manager who was one of the few alongside the stars mentioned above to realize that the housing market’s collapse would bring about an economic downturn unseen since the Great Depression of the 1920’s. Carell is the true moral center of the story, as his personal struggles are used to humanize the impact that financial issues can have. He is charming and yet intense, in a way that very few can achieve and something that Carell has mastered.
So, what is the problem with the film, I can hear you asking? The answer goes back to the directing of McKay, who counteracts his brilliant comedic decision-making and random star cameos with the jumpy intercutting of seemingly obscure scenes throughout the film. While the majority of the random scene mashups make sense, the shaky nature of them is enough to make one wonder whether he opted to innovate and film with a handheld camera. It contrasts against the scenes that are beautifully executed and lack the aforementioned shaky cam, presenting an inconsistency from scene-to-scene as the random mashups occurred far too frequently throughout the film. Additionally, the pacing of the film, as well as the tone, suffers as the story moves forward, with the final quarter of the film consisting of a markedly different tone while advancing at a speed that was –again- inconsistent with what came before.
The soundtrack was -in a running theme throughout the film- inconsistent. There were scenes where the music and/or background score seemed just right (to quote everyone’s favourite Goldilocks) while others lacked that extra “oomph” because the sound either did not fit or was replaced with ambient sound. Visually, the film was as gorgeous as a film can be that is centered around office spaces and banks, with no stunning vistas or action scenes that one has come to associate with blockbuster films nowadays. Tonally, this was the correct decision as the film was all about the financial sector’s failure to foresee impending doom and Wall Street isn’t exactly associated with palm trees.
For what the film set out to do in explaining how the subprime mortgage crisis led to the financial meltdown that our audience is familiar with, The Big Short exceeded expectations. It managed to explain how such a meltdown happened and provide compelling characters that simplified the situation for laymen. Due to some glaring issues on the director’s end that are further compounded with issues regarding an inconsistent soundtrack, the film is held back considerably. Despite that, The Big Short is still recommended for how relevant the subject matter is as well as for its ability to make learning about the financial details behind loans and mortgages mostly entertaining.
After careful consideration, The Film Lawyers have decided to grace The Big Short with a grade of B-. (7/10).