Hollywood has finally found the right tone to address the financial collapse of 2008. Initially film-makers went for utmost gravity coupled with granular research. Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” (2010) lanced the mortgage-backed-securities bubble with pinpoint accuracy; J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” (2011) added great actors and a ticking-clock time scheme; while Ramin Bahrani’s excellent “99 Homes” (2015) focused on a single family which had been evicted. Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” tries a different tack. Adapted from Michael Lewis’s book about the motley band of outsider financiers who saw it coming, it is a giddy, rambunctious black comedy – a heist movie about the financial apocalypse.
Nothing in the film rings quite as wickedly true as the laughter from the bankers at Bear Stearns and Morgan Stanley when Michael Burry (Christian Bale) proposes his scheme. A fund manager who sits in his office wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops, blasting thrash metal, Burry has taken a close look at the subprime mortgage market and decided to bet against the system. “Greenspan’s wrong,” he announces calmly. Their response: sure we’ll take your money, kid.
Catching wind of the scheme is Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an angry rogue trader at Morgan Stanley who holds the big banks, his own included, in righteous contempt, plus two indie greenhorns, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), working out of their garage. When thwarted in their efforts to go public with the story to the Wall Street Journal, they bring in Brad Pitt, wearing a thick beard, as the retired trader Ben Rickert – a disenchanted guru, now living off the land, who gets them a seat at the big boys’ table.
These are not your typical masters of the universe. The presence of Bale, essentially inverting his role as the Armani-clad Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho”, should alert you to the full array of bad hair, supermarket clothes and clenched body language on display here. I loved the victory punch that Geller gives on his sofa when they get Rickert on board: there has been no sadder celebration in movies since Jonah Hill clenched his hammy little fist in “Moneyball”, also adapted from a Michael Lewis book. If anyone is the auteur here it is Lewis, for beneath the colourful characterisation runs the same moral point that energised “Moneyball” — that a system so hollowed out by meretricious success could only be called out by a bunch of runty, cantankerous outsiders. “I look for value where it can be found,” declares Baum, a walking argument of a man, itchy for a fight. “I’m happy when I’m unhappy.”
The same goes for the movie itself. McKay, whose previous credits include directing Will Ferrell in the “Anchorman” films, goes for an exuberant, hybridised shooting style to match his motley crew. We get a blizzard of close-ups, flashes of neon, sequences set in Miami and Vegas — the gaudy, rattier end of the American pop-culture spectrum — and regular to-camera chats from our master of ceremonies, the Deutsche Bank slickster Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). He cuts through all the talk of “collateralised-debt obligations” and “extrapolation bias” to ask, “Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.” Cut to Robbie swathed in foam and holding a glass of champagne, briskly unravelling the finer particulars of subprime mortgages. “Got it? Good. Now fuck off.”
That’s pretty explicit theft from Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”, the movie which first showed how well financial finagling lends itself to raucous dark comedy. But the borrowing is perfectly in keeping with McKay’s tone of antic insolence: light fingers go with the territory. Greatly aided by Hank Corwin’s blistering editing, he has made a nimbler film than Scorsese, sly and pointed, that whips along on its inverted premise – cheer on the end of the world! – with great brio and precision. Only at the final hurdle does it falter, with some preaching from Pitt about the lack of consequences for the fraudsters who brought the world economy to the brink of collapse. This lapse into earnestness, while morally on point, feels like a wobble in confidence from film-makers worried about their own natural exuberance. No apology needed.
The Big Short Out now in America, released in Britain on Jan 22nd