The Big Short: Ka-Ching! Steve Carell is right on the money
In 2005 Michael Burry (Christian Bale), founder and manager of the Scion Capital LLC hedge fund, correctly predicted the coming global financial crisis of 2008. By analysing mortgage lending practices, he concluded that bonds based on subprime mortgages would eventually begin to lose value. This conclusion led Burry to ‘short’ the market by persuading Goldman-Sachs to sell him credit default swaps against subprime deals.
If this sounds confusing, fear not – you are certainly not alone. The above description of the actions of the real-life Michael Burry led others to jump on to this opportunity, and sure enough, within just a few years, these investors were cashing in in ways the rest of us can now only fantasize about.
The Big Short does try to keep its audience in the loop. It goes to great lengths to explain terms most of us don’t understand (‘and now, to explain what a subprime loan is, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath’) and to show how these investment managers each came to the conclusion that Burry was indeed onto something most wouldn’t have thought possible. I won’t say I walked out of the theatre with a perfect understanding of the financial crisis. I will say I came out with a better understanding of the financial crisis.
Where The Big Short definitely succeeds is in dragging the audience through the story and highlighting the sheer stupidity, incompetence and fraud that ruined so many people’s lives. Whilst the ensemble cast of Christian Bale (Burry), Steve Carell (Mark Baum), Ryan Gosling (Jared Vennett, and also the narrator of the film), and Brad Pitt (Ben Rickert) are terrific in their roles, the supporting cast also do a great job of livening up the story and bringing a good deal of humour into the mix. I particularly liked John Magaro and Jamie Shipley, playing two young, upcoming investors who will eventually bring Pitt’s character into the fold, and Jeffrey Griffin, playing assistant to Gosling’s Vennett.
Thankfully (well, not really), this is a true story, otherwise we might have an issue in believing that the ‘characters’ in charge of the banks and lending institutions might behave in such an irresponsible and fraudulant way. But they did, and this is clearly spelled out in the actions of one of the cast in particular – Steve Carell.
I really never ever never ever ever thought I would say this – in a movie starring Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Steve Carell, it’s Steve Carell that steals the show. Don’t get me wrong -they’re all good (though Gosling is necessarily annoying), but Carell is a class above here and shows an acting range we’ve not seen from him since, well, ever. He’s sharply funny, at once angry and appalled (as he realises the true incompetence and stupidity of mortgage lenders) and in a scene in which he talks about losing his brother, surprisingly emotional. Credit to the writers for giving Carell so much to work with, but credit too, to the man himself, for eeking every last ounce out of the character he was given. This is Steve Carell’s movie. The rest are a (very good) supporting cast.
A word also about Christian Bale. He spends the vast majority of the film sitting in his office, yet his portrayal of Burry shows us clearly the pressure and emotional toll this incident took on his character. In direct contrast to Carell, Bale has very little to work with here, and doesn’t get as much screen time as you’d think, yet his character remains memorable, and an integral part of explaining the pressure cooker each of the investors find themselves in.
Pitt provides the human side. In possibly the most jolting scene in the film, he reminds his young charges that their victory is going to come at the cost of the average Schmo. It won’t be the banks that suffer, but rather average, work-a-day men and women. Pitt’s time on screen is surprisingly short, but it is impactful, and reminds us who the true victims of the financial collapse were.
To Gosling, who very much controls the feel and flow of the story. He comes across as a sharp, silver-tongued rogue looking for a big payout, and this is the overwhelming feeling we get from the film – that we were all conned, and at the end of the day, greed won, though obviously that is through no fault of the investors themselves. They simply saw an opportunity, one which never should have existed in the first place, and jumped on it.
The Big Short is funny – surprisingly so given its topic, engaging, and oh-so educational. It is a film you will talk, and think, about for a great many hours afterwards. The production is slick and glossy, and while you will find yourself laughing, it is difficult not to come away feeling just a little sick to the stomach about what we just witnessed.