Financial markets are incredibly complicated, and to most people are an impenetrable mystery. And yet the very small number of people who do understand them deal daily with figures which are larger than many governments' annual budgets. Depending on how much you understand shares, securities, triple-A bonds, ISDA agreements, investment banking, credit default swaps and bundled subprime mortgages, The Big Short may or may not make it perfectly clear exactly what happened in the global financial meltdown of 2007-08. But either way, it will certainly entertain you.
For about 99% of us, the financial jargon in Randolph and McKay's hilarious and very clever script will go soaring over our heads, possibly even breaking the sound barrier. Based on the 2010 bestselling book of the same name by Michael Lewis, The Big Short is the story of various financial wheeler-dealers who saw the crash coming and shorted the market – betting that subprime mortgage bonds would collapse. Leading the way is eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale) who stumbles across the fact (which only he can see, it seems) that the US housing market – based on high-risk subprime loans that provide little return – is very unstable.
He predicts that the market will collapse some time in 2007, and realises he can make obscene profits by creating a credit default swap market and betting against the housing market. When he approaches several banks to pitch them the idea, the greedy bankers quickly take on his bet, because they foolishly believe that the housing market is secure. As word of his $1.3 billion gamble gets passed around the financial community, more investors start to realise a financial crash is pretty much a mathematical certainty, including hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Carell) and a pair of home-based traders under the tutelage of retired Wall Street banker Ben Rickert (Pitt).
Would it help if you had stunning Aussie actress Margot Robbie explain the intricacies of macroeconomic trends while she sips champagne in a bubble bath? Done. McKay also has Selena Gomez detail how shorting the market works as she plays blackjack in Las Vegas, while celeb chef Anthony Bourdain explains from his kitchen just how the bankers "cooked the books". Yes, McKay – well known for comedy films such as Anchorman 1 and 2, Step Brothers and The Other Guys – makes a fine effort to leaven this drier-than-dry subject matter with big dollops of humour, and it really does help. He's aided by some fine performances form his stellar cast, led by the chameleon-like Bale as the shy and shoeless Dr Burry and Carell as the almost-always angry Baum. Gosling and Pitt are also fine, but do feel a little underused, and the film is fast paced and never drags, even if it is a tad overlong.
The Big Short may not leave you any better off with your understanding of the financial markets, but it's a well-made, fun and scathingly funny couple of hours in the company of some great actors. The film approaches a serious and complicated subject and makes a pretty good fist of trying to penetrate the impenetrable. Of course, the film's protagonists are all a part of the corrupt system - when they see the crash coming, rather than doing all they can to prevent it, they instead do all they can to cash in on it. It will entertain you, yes, and will probably also leave you pretty angry that the people responsible for that economic mess actually got away with it – and will more than likely do so again.
EXTRAS: There are five Deleted Scenes (6:28) and a series of quite interesting featurettes ... In The Tranches: Casting (15:51); The Big Leap: Adam McKay (11:31); Unlikely Heroes: The Characters of The Big Short (11:28); The House of Cards: The Rise of The Fall (14:01); and Getting Real: Recreating an Era (11:13). All that's really missing is a director's commentary, but it's the kind of film that doesn't desperately need one.