We need to talk about regulation. The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis spent 28 weeks on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list when it was published in 2010. The book attracted rave notices for its clear, concise analysis of the cuckoo-bananas mortgage- and credit-swapping bonanza that led to the US financial crisis of 2007-10.
But whereas the same author's Moneyball had baseball and backroom politics to recommend it as a screen drama, The Big Short is a harder sell. For one thing, it chronicles the efforts of those black swans who, realising the precariousness of the market, bet against subprime mortgages.
They’re a peculiar bunch of renegade profiteers, as exemplified by Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a neurologist turned hedge-fund manager with a glass eye and Asperger’s Syndrome, and Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a shouty, self-appointed crusader.
Writer-director Adam McKay, whose previous hits include the Will Ferrell vehicles Anchorman and Step Brothers, has crafted an audacious gripping screenplay from what ought to have been unwieldy screen material.
His approach is as unconventional as the film’s “heroes”, with frequent breaks in the fourth wall so that viewers who did not graduate from the LSE can keep up with the shenanigans.
Thus, Selena Gomez plays blackjack with economist Dr Richard Thaler to show how one bad bet has a ruinous domino effect on a Synthetic CDO (collateralised debt obligation); Anthony Bourdain demonstrates how banks bundle toxic assets into CDOs by creating “fish stew” from yesterday’s catch-of-the-day; Margot Robbie lectures from a bubble bath with a glass of champagne in hand.
At first, the to-camera segments can be discombobulating, but over two hours, the film coalesces into a brilliantly accessible, scathing account of the financial crisis, and its continuing aftermath. The coda, which outlines how nothing has changed and how no one was held accountable, is as maddening as it is terrifying. But hey, the tax payer makes for comfortable safety net, right?
Kudos to the ensemble, particularly Bale, who learned to play double kick-drum along to Pantera's By Demons Be Driven. Kudos, too, for Barry Ackroyd's glossy cinematography, which works to alert us to the rot underneath.
It’s a shame the boy’s club at the centre of the film isn’t counterpointed by female roles: Marisa Tomei and Karen Gillen are just not given enough to do. But if this a man’s world, they’re welcome to it.