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Film review: THE BIG SHORT, from ‘Built For Speed’

The Big Short sounds like the title of a caper comedy and in a sense it is although the caper is a particularly dubious one, the multi-billion dollar exploitation of a dysfunctional and seemingly corrupt financial system by greedy unscrupulous bond traders that led to the GFC and the financial devastation of millions of working people in 2008.

Directed by Adam McKay and based on the book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, the film places three people at the centre of the crisis: eccentric hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), trader Jared Vennett (named changed) (Ryan Gosling) and seemingly ethical but emotionally fraught hedge fund manager Michael Baum (Steve Carrell).

In an imposingly complex storyline, Burry, a savant number cruncher, predicts that a housing bubble will cause the market to collapse in a few years and that enormous profits can be made from this collapse via something called a credit default swap. Learning of this and also realising that dodgy investments called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) will further undermine the integrity of the financial system Vennett lures Baum into the credit default swap miasma under the dubious premise that they can punish greedy merchant banks rather than working stiffs. History, as we know, proved otherwise. Also entangled in this sordid world are eager young fund managers Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and their oddball mentor, former banker Ben Rikert (Brad Pitt).

This is only a precis of a very convoluted story that delves deeply into the complex mechanics of bond trading and the strange, perverse and seemingly corrupt forces that control the American economy and the livelihood of millions of people. The film attempts to explain the Byzantine processes of the financial world but much of this will remain a mystery for anyone without a working knowledge of the bond trading system. This is actually a deliberate ploy on director Adam McKay’s part to convey the idea that the bankers wanted to confuse the public and the regulators so they could ply their trade without interference from nerdy kill-joys who wanted a fair system. Appropriate as the confusing language might be, it will still prove a chore for many audience members.

Just to make things a little more difficult for the audience, Director Adam McKay adopts a madly varying visual style that switches from frenetic Scorsese-like depictions of the bond trading system to the wild hyper speed montages of pop-cultural icons then to oddly inert scenes of people languishing in offices. Also, he has characters and guest celebrities like Margo Robie (who’s sipping champagne in a bubble bath) and Selena Gomez breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera to explain some of the complex financial products.

The fact that such a film comes from frequent Will Ferrell collaborator and Anchorman director McKay may seem odd at first but like those films, this is essentially a story of egotistical white men behaving appallingly. In this case, though, the crazy behaviour of these men is real and their actions hit the world like a meteor.

Within the confines of their nutball characters, all the mega-star cast members are excellent. Bale is oddly endearing as the childlike genius Burry who dresses like a slob, listens to metal at ear-splitting volume and reads the Shannara fantasy novels at the office. Steve Carrell cleverly alternates between noble crusader and arrogant self-righteous bully in his depiction of Baum while a hideously spray-tanned and permed Gosling perfectly embodies a smug, arrogant Wall Street sleaze bag.

This film’s feverish visual style and brain-boggling financial babble will be a deal-breaker for some viewers but amid the chaos and parade of vile people this film still conveys the vital message that the bankers should never be allowed to run rampant like this again.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Adam McKay.

Release date: 14thJanuary 2016.

Running time: 130 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show

 

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