Adam McKay, former head writer for Saturday Night Live, co-wrote and directed this black comedy based on the 2010 book of the same name by Michael Lewis, all about how a few quirky finance guys foresaw the looming financial crisis of 2007-2008, and ended up profiting from it.
When trader Jared Vennett of Deustche Bank (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s credit default swap market, he decides to get in on the action too. Vennett’s wrong number phone call alerts our other protagonist, Mark Baum, another quirky, curmudgeonly hedge fund manager adroitly played by Steve Carrell. Baum and Vennett join forces and Baum begins to investigate the depth of the problem with the US Housing market. Baum is a sensitive guy who was deeply affected by his brother who committed suicide. He discovers that collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) are loan packages bundled together and given AAA ratings by unscrupulous rating agencies. McKay wisely takes us out of the finance board rooms and has his principals attend a big housing forum in Las Vegas where Baum in particular meets a fat cat businessman who has profited greatly by creating synthetic CDOs. Baum ultimately convinces his business associates to adopt Burry’s stratagem.
The film is nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, and on that front, it has a real chance. The writers took what should be a dry, boring subject and made it somewhat interesting by adding humor and some unexpected cameos. The biggest problem McKay must have faced in writing and directing this was the need to get a lot of very technical and very, to put it frankly, boring information across without alienating the audience and making them feel stupid or having them lose interest. He tries some neat little tricks like having celebrities play themselves in cameos that give a metaphorical example for the topic at hand, or even going as far as saying that we as an audience are supposed to feel stupid listening to the Wall Street lingo, because that’s the way they want it to be. Does it work? It does, but it only really covers up a small portion of the film. I’d imagine a lot of viewers would have been left very confused as to what was going on at certain points in the film. An unavoidable aspect of the film.
The film relies heavily on its characters to push through a lot of the jargon and create comedic relief so that the whole thing doesn’t feel too heavy. While these characters were based on real people, they certainly wouldn’t have written themselves in a story like this. Four Hollywood heavyweights Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale and Brad Pitt were brought in to bring these characters to life. Bale has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards. He was good but I feel he lacked a lot screen time and his performance might be a touch overrated due to a glass eye. The real stand-out of the bunch for me was Carell. He gets far and away the most screen time of the four and uses it exquisitely. He was nominated last year for ‘Foxcatcher’ in which I didn’t think he was overly impressive. I think this year he deserved a nomination more than he did for that. Sadly he missed out, perhaps not enough make-up? Sometime I wonder if that’s all the Oscars care about in the acting categories.
In total the film was nominated for five Academy Awards. Bale’s one, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. Of the five I’d say the only one it has a real shot at (and probably will indeed win) is Best Adapted Screenplay. Every other aspect was fine, but it feels like one of those cases where the film should just be happy to be nominated for certain things – perhaps Best Director in particular.
The Big Short gets a 7.2/10.