Let’s get one thing straight: I. Hate. Economics. I’m sure a therapist would connect the root of my problem to that one grade 7 math class I skipped, causing me to have a half-baked understanding of fractions and percentages. After entering the life of adulthood (post my first appointment with the bank) I have tried to learn about this confusing, number-crunching, crystal ball industry. But even with instructors like Ryan Gosling in a tailored suit or Chef Anthony Bourdain preparing a five star meal, I still feel stupid for forgetting my notebook and highlighters. The Big Short tries its very best to make investments fun, interactive, and most importantly, understandable. This approach creates an entertaining movie… but try as they might, I’m like Charlie Brown listening to a lesson of “Waan wa wan waan.”
The Big Short begins with a single self-proclaimed weirdo who gets the ball rolling. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is just a shorts-wearing, shoeless, social skills-lacking investor who notices that America’s housing market is propped up on lies and air. This is in 2005. Being a smart, forward-thinking guy he decides to make a couple of bucks for his investors off of the market’s certain doom. So Michael visits the big banks and asks to invest in the collapse of the housing market. They laugh at him. It’s a joke for the bankers and a total win for Michael (in the long run) when the Suits around the tables happily agree to take his $100-$200 million investments. It doesn’t take long before three other small groups get wind of the size of Michael’s…spunk: namely Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his hedge fund, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller’s (John Magaro) independent hedge fund, and banker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who’s just in it for the green. These three groups make obscenely large bets against the banks and the health of America’s economy and then sit back and cringe as all their predictions come true.
If I have such a phobia of economics, why would I go see a movie that has to spell out and define its key words on screen? The answer should be obvious: Ryan Gosling. That man can play the most pompous jackass on the planet and half the world would still want to marry him. The Big Short recognizes that many of us are still in the blind about what really happened during the 2007/2008 crash, and we’d probably still be none the wiser if an expert sat us down and explained. To get past this obvious, box office draining speed
bump, director Adam McKay decided to call it like it is and break the fourth wall. Every once and a while a famous face appears on screen to dumb down the lingo as much as possible. Even with the help of Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and a Blackjacks metaphor, I still face the good old college truth: The Big Short doesn’t make me want to reach for an economics textbook; it makes me have to reach for one.
While The Big Short’s premise may sound like (let’s face it) a movie for smart people with filthy language (like a slightly more honest, more legal version of The Wolf of Wall Street), it really doesn’t look like one. Cinematographically speaking, the camera work mimics my directional confusion and inability to focus on the film. The shot bounces every which way from one screaming investor to the next, and has an obviously difficult time bringing the speaker into clear focus. Very much like the subject matter, it’s a bit dizzying.
What is perfectly clear, however, is that these actors know what they’re doing. Angry can also be endearing when it’s coming from Steve Carell. But on the more reserved side, Christian Bale never ceases to amaze. Bale acts with his entire being, from his posture to his uneven eyelids. I believe him. Michael has less screen time than anyone else in the film and much less character-to-character interaction, but Bale dunks himself in his character’s persona and doesn’t flinch once.
The Big Short doesn’t shy away from blaming the banks and mortgage brokers for America’s financial misery. Shock, disbelief, and ignorance are the words of the day (those and “CDO,” “Triple A,” “Credit default swap,” “Subprime,” etc.). The advertisers sell the idea that The Big Short is easy to understand for those of us who are less economically inclined than others. That is a top-hat, monocle-sporting lie. Sure the cameos help to explain and the repetition isn’t overused, but trying to grasp all the information and vocabulary is still like trying to hug an elephant who’s rolling down a hill. The Big Short is funny, entertaining, and dramatically shocking… but difficult to understand. That combined with the foggy camera work (although no complaints on the acting) has me saying that The Big Short falls a little short at 6.5/10.