FILM REVIEW: ‘The Big Short’ falls short on substance
Two years after The Wolf of Wall Street dazzled us with its epically energetic portrayal of adrenaline-fuelled amoral stockbroking, Paramount puts forward a different take on Wall Street – this time not from the perspective of the hard-partying profit spinners, but rather of four ‘weirdos and outsiders’, who manage to make a mint from predicting the 2008 financial collapse. While the film bursts with charismatic performances and cleverly penned quips, presenting a smokescreen of diverting gags and images, The Big Short doesn’t handle its subject matter in any real or meaningful way, begging the question of why, asides from the pursuit of almighty profit, this film was made at all.
The irresistible line up of Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt is sure to guarantee an audience for the comic drama, regardless of whether those viewers understand the difference between a synthetic collateralised debt obligation and a single-tranche collateralised debt obligation or not. Employing clever – if somewhat jarring – devices to translate this vital jargon, such as Margot Robbie explaining CDOs and subprime mortgages to the camera while sipping champagne in a bubble bath, the writing allows even the most clueless of viewers to get whipped up in the drama. Meanwhile, rapid-cut montage sequences interspersing each year in the 2005 – 2008 timeframe are effective in giving us a quick and satisfying sense of context. Details such as these should serve to elevate director Adam McKay from his prior filmography of Will Ferrell-led titles.
Primary acting credits go to Bale and Carell for their respective leading performances as Michael Burry – antisocial one-eyed mastermind behind the whole scheme, whom we never see interacting with the other characters – and Mark Baum – guileless and neurotic FrontPoint money manager who joins in on the big bet. Meanwhile, John Magaro (Carol) and Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story) are compelling in their Silicon Valley-reminiscent roles as eager young investors who find themselves managing multi-millions while barely out of college. One of the film’s most striking moments comes from these two as they sneak into the offices of recently bankrupt investment company Lehman Brothers. “This isn’t how I pictured it”, sighs Magaro’s character. “What did you think we’d find?” asks Wittrock. “Grownups”, replies Magaro. Exchanges such as these help to pin down the message the film attempts to deliver; a message that unfortunately spends too much time flailing around in the wind.
Had the film focussed on any one of the individual stories of Bale, Carell or Magaro and Wittrock’s characters in its own right, it could have delivered an interesting portrait of the real people behind the ‘big short’. Instead, it spreads itself too thinly across each thread to achieve any significant exploration of any of them.
The Big Short hits UK cinemas this January 22nd.