Nobody likes bankers. Nobody likes bankers, but most of us don’t really understand why. Look at your most basic broadcast journalist vox pop experiment, and you’ll be bombarded with murmurs of bonuses, bail-outs, and fraud. They’re little more than buzz words, really. For the vast majority of the public, both here and across the Atlantic, the financial crash of 2008 was a proverbial shit-storm of information, misinformation, and talking head nonsense.
It’s little surprise then, that Hollywood’s attempts to make big bucks out of bankers have often shied away from the numbers, the terminology, and the nuts and bolts. The everyday cinema-goer, the industry assumes, would much rather see Di Caprio making it rain dollars on a yacht, than watch men in suits chat business over coffee.
In this sense, The Big Short is rather brave. The film’s title is a nod to stockbroking terminology; To “short” a security – a fancy term for a bond, stock, or debt which needs repaying – means to bet against it’s value. A short is successful, when the value of the security decreases.
Ryan Gosling’s morally ambiguous protagonist Jared Vennett acts as narrator, slickly guiding the audience through the terminology and mechanics. On several occasions, this guidance manifests in short cut-away scenes, in which a raft of real-world stars like Selena Gomez, Margot Robbie, and American economist Richard Thaler, guide us through the ins-and-outs of what’s going on.
It’s a little on the nose, but it manages to tread that delicate line between boorishly patronising and necessarily informative that many films of this ilk have the propensity to ignore. Make no mistake – in a film starring Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, and the aforementioned Ryan Gosling, it’s the economics that takes centre stage.
this is a dark film. Darker still because it’s so steeped in reality.
The story follows four, occasionally interlinked, groups of characters in their attempts to ‘short’ the housing market. Whilst with the benefit of hindsight, we know their prophecy of apocalyptic collapse was all too real, their struggle to be taken seriously in an industry blinded by greed is disturbingly engrossing.
Given the gravity of it’s subject matter, I must confess I was surprised to learn that The Big Short was being touted by some as a comedy. Don’t be fooled by the fourth-wall breaching glances to camera, or the somewhat surprising appearance of New Girl‘s Schmidt – this is a dark film. Darker still because it’s so steeped in reality.
And it’s reality that truly lends this film it’s emotional weight. Behind all the numbers, the slick hair, the thousand dollar suits and whitened teeth, we’re reminded of the humanitarian reality of economic crisis. We’re consistently presented with a swathe of riches-to-rags sub-plots; from the small-time mortgage providers left jobless, through to tenants left homeless by landlords whose mortgages have defaulted. It’s an oft-neglected dimension of Wall Street-based screenplays, and it allows
Despite the largely narrow focus on big-picture economics, the film struggles to resist the allure of our protagonist’s interpersonal crises. At risk of sounding cold, in a film already buzzing with plot points, the half-hearted foray into the personal lives of Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and Michael Burry (Cristian Bale) feel like unnecessary distractions. In particular, the childhood flashback to Burry’s struggles with his glass eye feel superfluous and clunky in their emotionality.
Nonetheless, this refreshingly self-aware biopic provides plenty of food for thought. By placing the why of the economic crisis at the forefront, it uses information to pack an emotional punch with a lasting effect. It may leave you with more questions than answers, but one thing’s certain: you’ll understand exactly why nobody likes bankers.