Introduction

The Big Short

The Big Short
  • Country of production: USA
  • Year: 2015
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Adam McKay
  • Running time: 130 minutes
 

The Big Short is an exhilarating ride through the fraud, negligence and stupidity that led to the 2008 financial crisis. It centres on a group of rogue investment bankers, played by BRAD PITT, STEVE CARELL, RYAN GOSLING and CHRISTIAN BALE, who foresaw the collapse in the US housing market and attempted to make a profit from it. Director ADAM McKAY, best known for the Anchorman comedies, has crafted a ‘wildly entertaining’ satire (Tim Grierson, Screen International) that is ‘one of the funniest and yet most sobering’ movies of the year (Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times). It has been nominated for four Golden Globe Awards, including Best Motion Picture and Best Screenplay.

Investment manager Michael Burry (Bale) is the first to discover that America’s economy has become a ticking time-bomb and comes up with a way of exploiting this. Wall Street banks have developed mortgage bonds that are packed with risky ‘sub-prime’ loans that are likely to default. Burry plans to ‘short’ (meaning ‘bet against’) the housing market by taking out insurance policies on these bonds.

Gosling’s Jared Vennett gets wind of the scheme and convinces Mark Baum (Carell), manager of a small investment bank, to buy in. Meanwhile, Wall Street veteran Ben Rickert (Pitt) is coaxed by up-and-coming traders Charlie Geller (JOHN MAGARO) and Jamie Shipley (FINN WITTROCK) into helping them get in on the action.

The film combines the excitement of trying to hit it big in the financial markets with scorn for the shady practices uncovered. Wall Street’s chicanery flourished in part because its confusing jargon puts off outsiders, yet McKay’s film manages to be engaging and fun. Whenever the concepts threaten to become too highbrow, the director playfully halts proceedings to allow the audience to catch up with light-hearted explanations delivered in cameos by actress MARGOT ROBBIE, singer SELENA GOMEZ and TV chef ANTHONY BOURDAIN.

Adapted from MICHAEL LEWIS’s non-fiction bestseller The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the film was produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, which had previously filmed another Lewis book, Moneyball. This also celebrated a maverick (in that case a baseball manager) challenging conventional wisdom.

Re-view

The Big Short

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‘A true crime story and a madcap comedy, a heist movie and a scalding polemic, The Big Short will affirm your deepest cynicism about Wall Street while simultaneously restoring your faith in Hollywood.’

(AO Scott, The New York Times)

The Big Short offers a very different treatment of the financial crash to other films about it, including Charles Ferguson’s 2010 documentary Inside Job; J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (2011) and Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes (2015). It’s a ‘fresh and brilliant synthesis of knowing insiderism and populist incitement’ (AO Scott, The New York Times). The Big Short has ‘all the energy of The Wolf of Wall Street [2013], plus the coherent point of view that the earlier film lacked’ (Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal).

Banging the drum

The central figures are all based on real people and McKay draws out their eccentric, outsider qualities, which serves to elicit our support for them as underdogs.

Christian Bale gives an ‘unexpectedly touching’ performance (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker) as socially awkward Michael Burry, who sits barefoot in his office drumming to death metal. ‘He conveys Burry’s rueful recognition of his own social ineptitude [and] his fraying grin-and-bear-it attitude toward slick operators who condescend to him’ (Michael Sragow, Film Comment).

Steve Carell’s Mark Baum is an abrasive maverick: immersed in Wall Street but driven by personal tragedy and righteous anger about banks’ treatment of ordinary people. He’s ‘a lovably cranky champion for the little guy’ (Tim Grierson, Screen International).

Charlie and Jamie are young upstarts staking their own money who join forces with Ben Rickert, a retired master trader and doomsday theorist. Brad Pitt lends him his superstar gravitas and, sporting a beard, an ‘intellectual, Robert Redford-esque persona’ (David Edelstein, New York Magazine).

Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, meanwhile, is our slickster guide to the unfolding apocalypse. Smarmy and likened to a ‘lizard with sideburns’ (Anthony Lane, The New Yorker), Gosling makes him charming and almost likeable. His ‘winking wit inoculates the movie against excessive earnestness’ (AO Scott, The New York Times).

The film’s narrative style mirrors the adrenaline-fuelled characters, the complex and chaotic world of Wall Street and the high stakes. ‘Rollicking’ is how a number of critics described it. McKay directs with ‘feverish ingenuity’ (Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun Times), incorporating a self-aware narrator, frequent breaking of the fourth wall and pop-culture montages. Hand-held cameras and close-ups ramp up the energy and bring the audience into the drama.

Loan sharks

In one surreal sequence Baum and his analysts venture out to research the housing market bubble in the mortgage marshland of Florida. They come across alligators in the swimming pools of abandoned mansions and no less predatory mortgage brokers selling home loans to jobless immigrants, along with loan-flipping strippers and a hyper-motivated estate agent (“the market’s in an itsy-bitsy little gully”).

Short-sighted watchdogs

McKay’s comic depiction of those who looked the other way as events unfolded is also on the money. An analyst for an agency that gave triple-A ratings to sub-prime mortgage bonds, even as default levels rose, is shown blinkered in dark glasses, while a Securities and Exchange Commission employee has eyes only for men with Goldman Sachs business cards.

The Big Short is ‘a devastatingly funny comedy’, says Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times). ‘Devastating’ is the word. McKay’s film twins its comedy with serious observations of the suffering wrought by Wall Street. More complex than a conventional ‘good versus evil’ narrative, The Big Short also shows its protagonists wrestling with the morality of their actions.

Ultimately, as Michael Sragow of Film Comment states, ‘nobody gets the last laugh. The Big Short ends with a lament that no big culprits in the crisis went to jail.’ So, rather, the laugh’s on us. ‘It’s very, very funny. But it’s also a tragedy. Behind every easy drive-by laugh is a sincere holler of outrage’ (Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly).

 
Pro-files

The Big Short

RYAN GOSLING

(JARED VENNETT)
RYAN GOSLING

 

Ryan Gosling stands out among his contemporaries: an actor who has achieved considerable success in mainstream Hollywood movies and found critical acclaim in more challenging, independent fare. His fiercely intelligent, committed performances have made him one of the leading actors of his generation.

A child actor in a Disney TV show in the early 1990s (alongside Justin Timberlake), Gosling first attracted serious attention as the charismatic but disturbing neo-Nazi protagonist of 2001 drama The Believer. The film was a critical success, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, and in 2004 Gosling enjoyed his first big hit, bringing a winning romanticism to the male lead of sentimental drama The Notebook.

His performances continued to strike a chord with audiences: he was great fun in the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love and exuded tough-guy cool in thriller Drive (both 2011). But Gosling also took on darker, more serious roles in smaller, independent films, such as his poignant turn as a drug-addict teacher in Half Nelson (2006), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

He has also received four Golden Globe nominations, including one for his searing performance in director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), an unflinching look at a troubled relationship. He reunited with Cianfrance to give a performance of unruly energy as a stunt motorcyclist in 2012 drama The Place Beyond the Pines.

Gosling made his own directorial debut with Lost River in 2014.

 

STEVE CARELL

(MARK BAUM)

Best known as one of Hollywood's finest comic actors, Carell has lately achieved success in more serious roles too.

Starting his career with acclaimed Chicago comedy troupe Second City, Carell worked on US TV comedy shows in the 1990s, including Saturday Night Live. And it was on television that he scored his first hit – as the pompous and deluded manager of The Office (2005-13), NBC's version of Ricky Gervais's BBC sitcom. Carell's performance was a triumph of understated comic timing and won him a Golden Globe.

He is adept at broad humour – notably as the slow-on-the-uptake newscaster in the Anchorman films (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy in 2004 and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues in 2013). But he also has a gift for playing quieter, more character-based roles. This was most evident in his charming, star-making turn in the title role of The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), which he also co-wrote.

Carell’s other comedy credits include Little Miss Sunshine (2006), an indie hit that garnered four Oscar nominations; spy spoof Get Smart (2008); Despicable Me (2010) and its 2013 sequel, where his skill as a voice actor came into its own; and Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011), with Ryan Gosling.

Carell surprised many with his straight performance as the troubled, multi-millionaire protagonist in dark 2014 crime drama Foxcatcher, for which he was Oscar-nominated.

CHRISTIAN BALE

(MICHAEL BURRY)
CHRISTIAN BALE

 

Like Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale is one of the few actors to have made the transition from child star to successful adult performer. Born in Wales, the pre-teen Bale was picked by Steven Spielberg to play the traumatised young hero of Second World War drama Empire of the Sun (1987). It was a remarkable turn and the intense, courageous dedication he showed in the role would be a hallmark of his performances as an adult.

His big breakthrough came playing the murderous yuppie antihero of American Psycho (2000) and he followed this with a critically acclaimed performance in atmospheric thriller The Machinist (2004), for which he reportedly lost 60 pounds.

Bale achieved widespread prominence a year later as the caped crusader of Batman Begins; and while he continues to lead big-budget action movies, including Terminator Salvation (2009), his mainstream success hasn’t diluted his appetite for dark or confrontational roles. These include his physically demanding performance as a captured Vietnam PoW in Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn (2006) and his Oscar, Golden Globe and Bafta-winning role as the troubled half-brother to a professional boxer in David O Russell’s The Fighter (2010).

He reunited with Russell in 2013 for American Hustle, revealing a light comic touch as a con artist in 1970s New York and earning further Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations in the process.

BRAD PITT

(BEN RICKERT)
BRAD PITT

 

Brad Pitt has been one of Hollywood's biggest stars for the past 20 years. A performer with a commanding screen presence and an unerring instinct for great roles, the 52-year-old actor shows little sign of losing his box-office and critical sway.

Oklahoma-born, Pitt started his career with bit parts on US television. He enjoyed an early breakthrough as the cowboy hitchhiker in Thelma & Louise (1991), a part that traded on his striking good looks. A more sensitive turn in 1992 drama A River Runs Through It brought critical attention.

In 1994 Pitt starred alongside Tom Cruise as the charismatic Louis de Pointe du Lac in The Interview with the Vampire, but it was his role as the young detective in serial-killer thriller Seven (1995) that established his name. That same year he won his first Oscar nomination (for best supporting role) in Terry Gilliam's science-fiction thriller Twelve Monkeys. His riskiest role to date was the pugnacious revolutionary of Fight Club (1999).

Since then he has retained his enormous box-office clout with winning lead turns in such big-budget hits as Ocean's Eleven (2001), Troy (2004) and World War Z (2013). He has also broadened his range, showing a terrific flair for comedy, notably as the dim-witted fitness instructor of Burn After Reading (2008).

Pitt has impressed, too, in more serious roles: he was menacingly charismatic as gunslinger outlaw Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). He also earned acclaim as the flawed 1950s father in The Tree of Life (2011) and a Canadian labourer in 12 Years a Slave (2013), both of which he co-produced.

Pitt has received two Best Actor Oscar nominations, for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Moneyball (2011).

Most recently he brought a bruised complexity to his role as a blocked novelist in marital drama By the Sea (2015), alongside his wife Angelina Jolie Pitt.

MARISA TOMEI

(CYNTHIA BAUM)

Marisa Tomei is one of American cinema's best actresses, acclaimed for both her comedic and straight performances. Her big breakthrough came in 1992 when, as well as playing real-life silent movie star Mabel Norman in lavish biopic Chaplin, she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her boisterous performance as Joe Pesci’s foul-mouthed girlfriend in gangster comedy My Cousin Vinny.

She has since applied her deft comic touch to such light-hearted affairs as romantic comedy What Women Want (2000), with Mel Gibson; Anger Management (2003), with Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson, and Wild Hogs (2007).

Tomei’s more serious performances have been equally well received. Her role as a woman in a relationship with a younger man in tragic drama In the Bedroom (2001) earned her another Oscar nomination. She also played an unfaithful wife in Sidney Lumet’s melodrama Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), with Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A bold and uninhibited turn as a stripper in The Wrestler (2008), opposite Mickey Rourke, earned her a third Oscar nomination.

JOHN MAGARO

(CHARLIE GELLER)

Thirty-two-year-old John Magaro is rapidly emerging as one of American cinema's most highly rated young actors and appeared recently alongside Cate Blanchett in acclaimed 1950s melodrama Carol.

With a background in television and independent movies, his first major film was Not Fade Away (2012), starring the late James Gandolfini, in which he played an aspiring rock musician in 1960s New Jersey to critical acclaim.

He is to be reunited with his Big Short co-star Brad Pitt in the forthcoming Afghanistan war drama War Machine.

JEREMY STRONG

(VINNIE DANIEL)

Rada-trained Jeremy Strong’s background is in theatre but he has chalked up an impressive range of supporting roles in some of the most admired US films of recent years. One of his biggest performances was in Lincoln (2012), playing the president's secretary alongside Daniel Day Lewis (for whom he had worked as an assistant in 2005). Other films include Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Parkland, the 2013 JFK assassination drama in which he played Lee Harvey Oswald.

RAFE SPALL

(DANNY MOSES)

London-born Rafe Spall, son of Timothy Spall, is one of Britain's most versatile actors. Early roles included a supporting part in Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead in 2004 and he worked with him again on Hot Fuzz in 2007 and The World's End in 2013. He played novelist Yann Martel in Ang Lee's Oscar-winning adaptation of Martel's book The Life of Pi (2012) and was recently seen as the gruff but kind-hearted teacher in touching British teen drama X+Y (2014).

MELISSA LEO

(GEORGIA HALE)

A regular face on US television throughout the 1980s and 1990s, most notably on gritty cop drama Homicide: Life On The Street, Melissa Leo had to wait until 2008 for her first big cinema success: in the thriller Frozen River she played a middle-aged woman going through hard times and embroiled in a scheme to smuggle illegal immigrants across the US border. Her acclaimed performance saw her nominated for a best actress Academy Award and she went on to win an Oscar as a force-of-nature matriarch in 2010 boxing drama The Fighter (alongside Christian Bale).

KAREN GILLAN

(EVIE)

Born in Inverness, Karen Gillan is likely to be best known to British audiences for her role in Doctor Who – she was Amy Pond, the assistant to Matt Smith's Time Lord between 2010 and 2012. Now based in Los Angeles, she is fast developing a promising US career, with a lead role in short-lived ABC sitcom Selfie and her portrayal of superhero Nebula in the Marvel adaptation Guardians of the Galaxy (both 2014).

MARGOT ROBBIE

(MARGOT ROBBIE)

Australian-born Robbie’s early career included a spot in TV soap Neighbours but her best known role to date was in another film about financial misdealing. In The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) she played the glamorous second wife of Leonardo DiCaprio's fraudster stockbroker. She followed that with a lead part as an aspiring con artist alongside Will Smith in Focus and a major role in Second World War drama Suite Française (both 2015).

ADAM McKAY

(DIRECTOR AND WRITER)

Like Steve Carell, whom he directed in the Anchorman films, Adam McKay’s background is in comedy. He was head writer on renowned US sketch show Saturday Night Live, where he met longtime producing and writing partner Will Ferrell. They have collaborated on several films, with McKay directing and co-writing, including Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), Step Brothers (2008) and The Other Guys (2010), in addition to the Anchorman films.

McKay and Ferrell also set up comedy website Funny or Die, which attracts more than 35 million hits each year.

In a possible precursor to The Big Short, McKay closed The Other Guys with a chart of bonuses paid to executives at financial companies taking government bailouts.

 
Cinemas

The Big Short

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