A closer look at… The Big Short

© Paramount, 2016.
© Paramount, 2016.

The Big Short is rated 15 for strong language, sexualised nudity

The ScoopA mixed bag of a film which nevertheless acts as an effective primer on the financial crash.

It’s 2005, and socially inept hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) thinks he’s spotted something huge. The housing market, long considered to be the foundation of the American economy, is far less stable than everybody believes. In fact, Burry predicts, a huge and catastrophic crash is on its way. If he plays his cards right, he can benefit from it.

Paying visits to numerous incredulous banks, Burry ‘shorts’ the housing market, effectively placing bets against it. When trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about what Burry is doing he accidentally alerts another hedge fund manager, the cynical Mike Baum (Steve Carrell), and they team up to short the market themselves. Meanwhile, another team – young investors Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Whittrock), and their older mentor Ben (Brad Pitt) – have also stumbled on Burry’s prediction and are doing the same.

As Baum and his colleagues dig deeper into what is causing the market collapse, they discover a financial system riddled with more fraud, corruption and stupidity than they could have imagined. The party will soon be over – and it won’t be the banks who have to pay.

Our Take

The Big Short is all too aware that its subject matter – mortgages, rates, loans, percentages – is snooze-inducing to the average person. In fact, that’s kind of the point: the banks relied on the fact that most people would switch off out of boredom or confusion and just trust them. The film’s answer to this problem is a  hyperactive, snarky script which proves to be both its strength and its weakness.

On the plus side, this financially ignorant, mathematically illiterate, economically clueless viewer emerged from the film with a relatively clear understanding of just how shockingly criminal the banks’ behaviour was. The Big Short is certainly accessible, and for that it’s to be applauded. Along with Mike Baum (the film’s best performance, from Steve Carrell), we experience a growing sense of incredulity and anger that the banks were actually able to get away with it. Sometimes, as with wartime classic Catch-22, it takes absurdist storytelling to communicate the madness of an unjust world.

But to me, many of The Big Short‘s tics feel like postmodern laziness. Then there’s the annoyingly mannered central performance of Christian Bale as Mike Burry, and a troublesome, pervasive air of hyper-masculine smugness. Perhaps the film intends to show us how the swaggering macho culture of the banks contributed to the collapse – but there’s still something frankly offensive about its assumption that every viewer is a straight male who’s dying to see Margo Robbie in a bubblebath. A decidedly mixed bag.

© Paramount, 2016.
© Paramount, 2016.

Dig Deeper

  • Did you enjoy the film, and why, or why not? How does it compare with other films tackling the subject of the financial crash, such as Margin Call (2011) and 99 Homes (2014)?
  • What techniques do the filmmakers use to make potentially dry subject matter accessible and interesting? In your view, how successful were they in this? How did you respond to the film’s ‘educational’ element?

‘Does it make you feel stupid, confused? Well, it’s supposed to.’ – Jared Vennett

  • What did you think of the film’s cast? Which character were you most interested in, and why? To what extent do you think we are supposed to like or root for any of these characters?
  • What do we learn from the film about the culture of the big banks leading up to the financial crash? What elements contributed towards the eventual disaster? How were bankers able to get away with their behaviour?

‘Not our fault. Simply the way the world works.’ – Georgia Hale (Melissa Leo)

  • Why are Burry and the others not believed by anyone else in the financial world when they predict the crash? Why are people so often unable or unwilling to accept ideas which go against the status quo?
  • What did you think of Jamie’s assertion that ‘People hate to think about bad things happening’? What other ideas does the film explore around why the public remained ignorant of the banks’ behaviour? How complicit do you think ordinary people were in the financial crash?

‘They’re all getting screwed, you know, and you know what they’re thinking about? They are thinking about the ballgame.’ – Mike Baum

  • To what extent does the film encourage us to enjoy or celebrate the behaviour of its central characters? What questions are raised about the morality of ‘the big short’? How much insight are we given into the impact of the crash on ordinary people?
  • What feelings were you left with at the end of the film? Do you think The Big Short has the power to move people to protest or action, and is this the film’s intent? How much power does each of us have to end corruption and injustice?
© Paramount, 2016.
© Paramount, 2016.

Read More

Adam McKay: laughing all the way to the bank

Interview: Oscar-Nominated ‘The Big Short’ Screenwriter Charles Randolph

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Sophie Lister

Damaris resources bring films to new audiences, start conversations, and enrich lives. Find out more at www.damarismedia.com Here at the Damaris Film Blog, we publish regular discussion guides to help you make the most of the latest cinema releases.

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