The Big Short. (15.)
Directed by Adam McKay.
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro and Rafe Spall. 130 mins.
Bowie, Rickman and Lemmy dead, horrendous flooding, terrorism: the transition from 2015 to 2016 hasn't been a period brimming with optimism. Now, just as a few lone voices are predicting that the economy will crash this year, comes a film from Will Ferrell's off screen collaborator about a few lone voices who realised that the American housing market was about to crash in 2007 and how no lessons have been learned and nothing has changed. And a Happy New Year to you too!
At this time of year many gongs are given out to films that are supposedly About something, but are really just about being about something; conventional strolls down traditional narrative paths that just happen to take in some unusual or topical backdrops. The Big Short really takes on its subject: it is a root and branch analysis of what went wrong, how the seed was planted in the 70s, how it was allowed to grow and fester and how everybody failed, or refused to notice. It even explains what subprime mortgages, CDOs and AAA ratings are.
At this point it needs to be pointed out that The Big Short is also wonderfully entertaining. Horrifying, enraging, depressing but still enormous fun. The film that keeps springing to mind while watching it The Wolf of Wall Street. The two address the same topic, have a similar confidence and swagger and director McKay co-opts some of Scorsese's tricks such as having characters break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. The difference is that DiCaprio's film spends its bloated running time ignoring the issue it professes to address and glorifying the people it seeks to condemn while frittering away its three hours in an epic rerun of Animal House and ultimately getting nowhere. The Big Short should leave The Wolf whimpering sheepishly in the corner with embarrassment.
McKay's 2010 buddy cop comedy The Other Guys is a really astute look at how popular culture acts as a piece of misdirection for big business. This film focuses on what matters because the whole point about the financial crash is that it happened because almost nobody bothered to try and understand what was happening, or they deliberately obfuscated what was happening under layers of gobbledygook.
Appropriately for a film about people who went unrecognised for a long time, The Big Short should be the time people wake up to the fact that Adam McKay, the man who made most of Will Ferrell's best films, is Hollywood's foremost political film maker. He's gone unrecognised because he was too funny. In Talledega Nights he had Ferrell's NASCAR champion driver being contractually obliged to include a plug for his sponsor's product every time he said grace before a family meal. For some reason it doesn't count as satire if it is laugh out loud funny.
Having Margot Robbie explain sub prime mortgages while drinking champagne in a bubble filled bath can be dismissed as a gimmick, but the film is genuinely radical. It focuses on four disparate groups or individuals who saw that the crash was coming – each one marked by one of the four big name stars (Bale, Gosling, Carrell and Pitt.) But it isn't primarily concerned with telling their stories – it is only interested in them in as far as they can be used to illustrate the bigger themes. It might not be Eisenstein, but it striking against the paradigm that films ultimately are about individuals and individual's stories.
None of the performers suffer because of this: Bale, Gosling, Carrell and Pitt are all on or near the top of their games, as are the supporting cast. The roles are bluntly delineated – Bale is the anti-social maths genius fund manager; Carrell is the righteous angry financier sickened by his career, Gosling is the obnoxious banker and Pitt is the paranoid retired investment banker who is trying to live off the grid – but they are not caricatures. The film gives you just enough to make them real, but no more than that, because ultimately they’re not the story. You couldn't pick one over the other, though the Academy chose to nominate Bale because his character clearly has some form of autism or Asperger's. All the characters that recognize the flaw in the system are isolated, socially awkward, and paranoid; it's like a Rainman convention. The point being that the system had become so convoluted, and people's acceptance of it so unthinking, that these were the only people who could see through it.
The Big Short is a brilliant film, but there is no good in it. Our four heroes spot injustice, and immediately set about working out how they can profit from it. It's as if John Wayne, having spent years tracking down and rescuing Natalie Woods from heathen injuns in The Searchers, gets her home and gangbangs her with some friends and then sells her on to a prostitution ring.
There are no sympathetic characters, nobody to root for, no arcs find redemption and no uplifting endings. And nobody learns any important life lessons. Its pleasures are being treated like a grown up and being told something straight. It is an exhilarating, funny, smart and terrifying ride that runs rings around most of the other Oscar pleaders but at the end you feel like you have very gently had all your future hopes and dreams slashed to ribbons.