Financial Crash – ★★★½
Amidst all the excitement of Lenny Abrahamson’s nomination for the Best Director Oscar, we all sort of missed the other big story to come out of that short-list – comedy movie favourite Adam McKay also got the nod for Best Director for The Big Short ahead of other predicted names like Todd Haynes, Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott. McKay is best known for being Will Ferrell’s BFF with co-productions like Anchorman, The Other Guys and Step Brothers and the joint venture of the “Funny or Die” website.
The Big Short is a look back at the US housing crisis which led to the global recession of 2008. McKay’s script (which he co-wrote with Charles Randolph, and for which they’re nominated for an Oscar) is loosely based on a 2010 book by Michael Lewis, also known for writing “Moneyball”. The film looks at three different groups of men who bet huge amounts of money on a bubble and profited from the eventual collapse.
- On the one side we have Christian Bale playing Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager who listens to heavy metal, wears a baggy t-shirt in work, feels no need for shoes and yet holds immense amounts of people’s money in his control. He spent hours studying spreadsheets and investment returns and, in 2005, declared that in 2007 the housing market would have big problems and decided to go to the banks and ask them to let him bet against them.
- Next up we get Steve Carell as Mark Baum, a head-fund manager with anger management issues. His brother killed himself a year ago, and Baum has immersed himself in his work to avoid dealing with it. We’re allowed to spend a few moments with his worried wife played by Marissa Tomei, but not long enough to allow us to get distracted away from the money. Baum gets wind of Burry’s tactics and is encouraged to get in on the action by obnoxious and cocky stock trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling).
- Last up we have two young traders just trying to get some skin in the game, Charlie and Jamie. They discover Vennett’s work and decide to get in on the action. To do this to any proper level they need the endorsement of a big fish so call upon the retired banker Ben Rickert, played by Brad Pitt. Rickert is best described as “earthy” as he has embraced a new life closer to nature where actual seeds are more important than things like hedge funds.
The need for the bullet points is not only due to an inability to condense the plot into a paragraph, but also indicative of all the things going on here. You’re always expecting the various strands to join up and our characters to all get into the room at one point but it doesn’t happen. While McKay and Randolph’s script has fictionalised a lot of characters, they’re all based on real figures so obviously felt the need to stay true to life.
While all the characters and their interests are sometimes hard to keep track of, luckily the script includes a lot of explainers and sidebars with characters like Gosling’s Vennett breaking the fourth wall and telling us just what credit default swaps are. McKay even gets celebrities in to jump on top of that broken fourth wall, meaning we end up with “pop-star Selena Gomez” in a casino discussing a synthetic collateralised debt obligation. It’s a very strange method of storytelling but when dealing with subject matter that is so far out there, it’s actually works.
The lead characters are all quite under-developed and closer to fun caricature than anything else. Combine that with the aforementioned celebrities and the preposterous sums of money being dealt with just push it into a raucous, outrageous territory that has much more in common with The Wolf of Wall Street than the likes of Margin Call or Too Big To Fail. Aside from a quick trip to a housing development in Florida, it’s not until that horrible final act as the crash actually hits that the reality of what’s going here really hits home.
It will sicken and frustrate, but aside from all that it will make you laugh – a lot.
Opening in Irish cinemas on 22nd January 2016