2015 / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #528: The Big Short (2015)

Surprisingly I’m already halfway through my look at this year’s eight Best Picture nominees and unfortunately it seems that we’ve also hit the low point in terms of The Academy’s favourite films of 2015. The film that I hope is this year’s weakest Best Picture nominee is Adam McKay’s The Big Short which tells the story of the men who realised the 2008 financial crisis was going to happen several years before it occurred.

Although I think that’s what the film was about as one of the problems I had with The Big Short is that it only gives the audience the briefest of explanations of what the hell the main characters are talking about. The main characters in question are Christian Bale’s eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry, Ryan Gosling’s arrogant trader Jarred Vennett and young investors Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley. Through a cavalcade of coincidences, all of these men discover that the housing market is unstable and look to capitalise on this in one way or another. Also in the loop are Steve Carell’s hot-headed hedge fund manager Mark Baum, who learns of Jared’s schemes due to a mix-up with a phone number, and Brad Pitt’s retired banker Ben Rickett; a former neighbour of Charlie and Jamie who use him as their way in to the banking world. Every time a new concept is introduced, whether it be AAA ratings or synthetic CDOs, director Adam McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph try to be clever by having a famous person explain it to us. But as much as I enjoyed seeing Margot Robbie in a hot-tub or Selena Gomez playing blackjack these scenes did little for me apart from enhance the smug tone of the film. In addition I felt that McKay and Randolph’s script, which was based on Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, relied too much on narration which I’m not a fan of at the best of times as I always believe that films should follow the ‘don’t tell us, show us’ ethos as much as they can. The majority of the narration is carried out by Gosling’s character, who is possibly the most unlikeable of the bunch and therefore I didn’t really care to listen to him all that much. Additionally we get points in the film where Charlie and Jamie stop the action to address the audience which again I didn’t like and made The Big Short feel sloppy. Again both of these narrative techniques made The Big Short seem like a film that thought it was smarter than everyone else but instead made it both confusing and smug in equal measure.

The frustrating thing is that there is a good film in The Big Short somewhere and I feel if just one of the characters had been focused on then it may have been a much better movie. For example I thought I’d initially warm to Bale’s Burry, an eccentric character who rarely wears shoes and who lost one of his eyes in a childhood football game. However he’s off-screen for the middle section of the film which is a shame as feel his character was more interesting than the likes of Jared, Charlie and Jamie all of whom ultimately profit from regular people losing their houses and jobs. Similarly I felt that Carell’s Mark could have been a sympathetic lead character due to the fact that his struggle to deal with his brother’s suicide has caused him to close himself off and become rather irritating. But again the film’s insistence to tell multiple stories means that Mark’s emotional baggage gets lost in the mix and the scene in which he finally talks about losing his brother doesn’t have the impact that I feel it should have done. One thing I can’t criticise is the performances and I do think that Bale deserved his Oscar nomination for at least making Mark a memorable character for the moments he’s on screen. Carell also shines briefly although his turn here isn’t nearly as impressive as his creepy performance in last year’s Foxcatcher. Ultimately I think The Big Short’s biggest failing is that it never gives the audience any chance to breathe and instead hurtles ahead with its multiple storylines none of which have that much impact. I do feel that I would’ve grasped the financial concepts introduced to me in the film if they’d be done so in a methodical manner rather than in a smug self-knowing way. Furthermore I didn’t like the way the film was edited together with McKay decided to cut in brief images of major cultural events of the time to indicate a new time period. This again added to the frantic tone of the film that I wasn’t a fan of as did the hip hop soundtrack which was another element of The Big Short that didn’t really gel with what was happening on screen.

Overall I was disappointed with The Big Short, a film that I really wanted to like due to who was involved on both sides of the camera. While the actors did try their best, they were ultimately let down by a script that was all over the place and a smug tone that I personally found quite alienating. However I can sort of see why the Academy have given it the nod due to it tackling a contemporary issue in a way that they feel is smart and funny. There are films that I’ve enjoyed about the banking crisis and do feel that JC Chandor’s Margin Call should have received more acclaim when that was in contention for the Oscars several years ago. I’m just hoping that The Big Short is the least enjoyable of this year’s Best Picture nominees or I’ll lose all hope in the Academy’s ability to choose a decent shortlist for their main prize this year.



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