The Big Short (Oscar Nominee 2016)

The Big Short (2015)
Dir: Adam McKay

The idea of watching a film about bankers is wholly unappealing to most. This takes a more comedic and energetic approach that stands out from the dramas that have come before but does it do a better job of explaining the financial crash than a more subdued film would?

Somewhat based on real events, this tells the story of the bankers who foresaw the housing market crash, and so created a ‘short’, essentially a bet against it, so that they would be paid if it all collapsed. Which it did.

Three years ago I reviewed ‘Margin Call‘ and this film really goes with that very well indeed, though this shows a different aspect of the issue and most of it is essentially the lead up to the crash that happens in that film. Coming from the director of films such as ‘Anchorman’ a completely straight drama would be a shock, so it’s no surprise that this revels in the elements of the true story that are more humorous and can be shown with a chance of laughter, even if it’s possibly at the cost of millions of homes and jobs. Much of the second half takes place in Vegas, a setting that works very well not just as things happened there, but as the link is made with betting. That resonated strongly with me, that these bankers are betting, if they win it means others have lost.

One thing I noticed in the editing of the film is the cutting off the ends of people’s sentences, though I’m not certain why. Is it because we’ve had the most important part of what they had to say and it’s showing they said a lot more but you don’t need to know that? I found it slightly annoying, and so frequent as to become a clear deliberate editing choice. Other than that, the movie has an almost documentary feel, almost like a Michael Moore film, it felt that way because of the unsettled camera-work plus the times it directly addresses the audience.

This is one of two big films in the past few weeks to make a point of ‘breaking the fourth wall’, with characters on screen talking directly to the audience. This does it in such a way as to use that technique when wanting to explain something, and when you’re discussing the financial system, there are a few terms that need to be explained, acronyms that the public wouldn’t know but need to learn to make sense of the film. Beyond just a character breaking the fourth wall, Ryan Gosling’s character Jared Vennett at times introduces a segue to someone else who’ll explain it, to make a dull piece of information as interesting as possible, such as Margot Robbie in a bubblebath, or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table. Margot Robbie, is an interesting choice, certainly used here as she’s a beutiful actress who looks good in bubbles, immediately I wondered if she was cast (over any other bubble-wearing actress) for the fact she was in ‘Wolf of Wall Street’, no doubt that link will be made in many viewers minds.

Ryan Gosling gets one of the most interesting roles, his character Jared Vennett is the one who addresses the audience and while he’s not involved the situation from the beginning, he gets to be a powerful force in shorting the housing market and ultimately comes out of it better than most. He is also the one that has the fun bit of explaining the U.S. mortgage system using bespoke Jenga blocks that he’s obviously gone to some length getting made with the tranche letters on them, a key scene that is likely the one you’ve already seen as the clip on TV when the cast have been interviewed or the film is discussed.

Christian Bale is the actor getting most awards praise for his role, with nominations at the BAFTAs and Oscars (as well as many others) for ‘Best Supporting Actor’. His is definitely one of the more likeable roles, as well as playing the person who figures it all out and not just a vulture who jumps on the opportunity bandwagon. Dr Michael Burry is also a real person, with their original name, rather than many of the roles in which names (at least) have been changed.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, comedic actors often seem to do their best work when in more dramatic roles. As McKay directed ‘Anchorman’ we get Brick Tamland himself Steve Carell in a main role here, one that allows for some comedy at times while alluding to a personal tragedy underpinning his jaded view of the financial system he is more than willing to bet against. Mark Baum (based on someone else) is outspoken and makes an impression from the moment he’s introduced. While not Carell’s very finest work, it’s always good to see him taking on a variety of roles that prove he has abilities outside of the comedies he’s best known for.

With the involvement of Plan B productions comes Brad Pitt, who always seems to get the best roles thanks to his producer power. Here again (as in ‘12 Years A Slave‘) he is the voice of morality, being the first person in the film to clearly point out how normal people will be affected. His character is one who is so odd as to stretch credulity, though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s an accurate portrayal and Pitt is very likeable as usual, especially as his role is the one who voices the concerns the audience, like myself, may be fixed on throughout.

Sadly there are no really good roles for women in this film, though there are a few substantial parts, Baum’s wife (Marisa Tomei) and a few female bankers, the rest are small roles such as strippers, or the cameos by Selena Gomez and Margot Robbie. It does seem to put most of the power in the hands of men, while that may be the large part of it, apparently the source material had more prominent parts for women and it’s unsure as to why that didn’t translate to the screen adaptation. To be fair though, it wasn’t particularly misogynistic, with Baum dropping whatever he was doing to take calls from his wife and the men more interested in asking the strippers about their mortgages instead of looking at what they use to pay for them.

What I found a little more disheartening was that I think it understates the effects of the situation. Despite brief moral grandstanding from a couple of characters and some clearly striking points at the end, it seems to push that aside a bit too much. Though I understand the focus is on people who did put that aside for the sakes of their careers and profits, it would be good to really make the point clearer and not try to sweep us up in the glossiness and slickness of it all. These people revel in how clever they are to see the crash coming and finding a way to profit from it, while neglecting to be as tenacious in trying to warn those who stand to lose everything. I know the film is presenting something staggeringly close to what actually happened and that’s the sad reality of it, but the filmmakers feel a little too happy to revel in how clever they are too, instead of being as clever in making the grim side of things as clear in their film.

It moves at such a pace, and there’s definitely much to enjoy. McKay clearly knew that the material presents a dry subject with easily dislikeable figures in a terrible situation, so jazzed it up in the best way possible and does so effectively while making things generally understandable, he has a promising future in genres other than comedy. I’m just a little perplexed as to why it’s getting so much love at the awards this year, beating other films I thought to be far better. The couple behind me at the cinema were even less enthusiastic, one fell asleep and started snoring, the other popped out at least 4 times, why they even went I don’t know! I enjoyed it more than them and believe it did a good job of getting the technicalities across in an engaging way, maybe even without the need for attractive soapy women. If you’re up for some fiscal drama with rapid-fire dialogue it may appeal, just there are other films out there that I’d recommend first.

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‘The Big Short’ won the BAFTA for ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ and is nominated for 5 Academy Awards in the categories of ‘Best Picture’, ‘Director’, ‘Supporting Actor’, ‘Adapted Screenplay’ and ‘Editing’. I think it’ll win a couple of these, not all, I do strongly believe there are some more deserving winners.

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5 thoughts on “The Big Short (Oscar Nominee 2016)

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