To fully dissect the ins and outs of The Big Short would be to insinuate that I had any sort of reasonable grasp on the ins and outs of the financial industry. Sadly, I can’t say that I really do, and at times it’s therefore a bit of an up hill struggle to fully appreciate the inner machinations of the unfolding scenario in director Adam McKay’s tale of the financial irregularities that led to the crash of 2008.
Whilst it’s of course intriguing to know the exact details of the situation, it is however not necessary to get overly bogged down in the minutiae to pick up on the fact that something was seriously afoot in the world of banking, and it’ll come as no shock to anyone, nor is it a plot spoiler, to suggest that the banking industry’s greed and foul play was the key factor that brought about such financial devastation, leading not just to the collapse of established investment banking institutions like Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns, but more importantly, leading to such devastating world-wide misery for so many.
Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a glass-eyed, socially awkward hedge fund manager has a hunch that the U.S housing market is in fact a bubble that’s going to burst. It’s a theory which goes against accepted ‘wisdom’ with the U.S housing market perceived to be a rock solid safe bet, but it’s a theory that he backs up by trawling through reams of bank mortgage data.
Burry is alone in his assumptions though and consequently considered a bit unstable by his peers, but he’s willing to put his company’s money where his mouth is. In an unprecedented move he proposes to bet against the housing market.
For the banking system, deals like this are akin to printing money, and naturally believing him to be insane, readily lap up the wager, whereas Burry’s colleagues are left in a highly nervous state and less than impressed.
Word of Burry’s ‘lunacy’ reaches Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), an investor and smooth operating salesman at Deutschebank who knows a get-rich-quick scheme when he sees one. He too goes against the grain, deciding to get in on the act.
By chance, word finds its way to FrontPoint Partners, an investment management firm, where Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team, reticent at first, fall for Vennett’s persuasive charms and they too decide to back this hairbrained scheme, as do, through a totally unrelated incident, a couple of rookie investors who happen upon the opportunity by accident. For them it’s their ticket into the big time having been denied a place on the big boys’ investment table by one of the larger banks.
Once again, the banks are quick to bite their hands off, and take all the wagers.
Thus a fairly tortuous waiting game begins; a game that requires the holding of nerve and the maintaining of faith in one’s hunches and suspicions.
Adam McKay, best known for his writing and direction of Anchorman, injects a fair bit of humour into The Big Short, which ensures that the serious content remains buoyant and that the plot is not allowed to wallow or stagnate.
The cast is collectively strong, savvy and full of energy, delivering sharp, slick dialogue with panache.
Particular plaudits though go to Steve Carell, an actor who, whilst you wouldn’t consider him the next Robert De Niro, and who is often unfairly accused of only ever playing Steve Carell, always seems able to put enough heart, soul and sincerity into his parts. Once again, here he presents himself as a thoroughly believable, engaging screen presence.
In The Big Short, Carell’s character, suffering from long-term depression, is pushed to the brink through the gradual realisation of the scale of deceit and wrong-doing within the banking industry, and a trip to a banking convention in Vegas will finally push him over the edge, revealing the true depths to which those within the industry’s seemingly moral-free world will actually stoop to.
Of course, history tells us how this one ends up. Quite how such a scenario was ever allowed to play out remains mind-boggling to say the least, and has only increased, quite rightly, the level of distrust in the banking system as a whole.
What many of us were unaware of though was that there were those that became stupidly rich on the back of such malpractice.
As ‘Partridgian’ as it may well sound: Needless to say… Michael Burry, the FrontPoint Partners team, Jared Vennett, the rookie investors and countless others… had the last laugh, but it’s credit then that McKay, through this enormously entertaining film, ultimately refuses to paint a picture of winners and losers, just greedy, untrustworthy criminals and those who sought to expose them for who they really are; albeit exposing them from a by now insanely wealthy standpoint.