The Big Short is the film that addresses the marketing collapse of 2008. It’s suddenly the talk of the town, because it took the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Picture over The Revenant and Spotlight. Perhaps the latter two films canceled each other out and The Big Short rose to the top. But as one of the strongest predictors of what may win the Oscar for Best Picture, that single award has completely upended that race.
In some ways, The Big Short is like those two other films. Like Spotlight, it’s an investigatory film, chock-full of excellent actors giving top-notch performances, all unfolding at a rather rapid pace. Like The Revenant, its reach exceeds its grasp, and while it comes up short, what there is up there on the screen is whip-smart, tough and well worth the visit.
Of course, the big challenge of the film is how to explain subprime mortgages, etc., in an interesting way. To do this, the film takes risks, and generally succeeds. For one, it breaks the fourth wall in a way that no recent film has, with lots of explanatory narration and direct address. It also breaks from its narrative line with quick asides to real people (e.g., Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez)—introduced by their real names—trying to make sense of what’s going on with metaphors and attitude. The editing is quick, and the pace reminds old-timers of His Girl Friday.
The acting is good to great. Good is Steve Carell, who nearly leaves his comic persona behind him with a focused and uncomfortable intensity that works for his character. It’s not a brilliant performance, but it’s a solid one, and he locks down on his character the whole time—a challenge for many another comic-turned-dramatic actors. Also good is producer Brad Pitt, now apparently casting himself as the moral center of his productions (this film and 12 Years a Slave). Very good is Ryan Gosling, who essentially the carries the film in terms of tone and perspective. Great is the inestimable Christian Bale, who proves once again that he is quickly becoming an American treasure (though he’s not originally American). A good-looking actor who consistently hides that fact, he is willing to go to great lengths to create unusual characters that are not always easy to relate to but are completely believable. Think The Mechanic, think The Fighter. This is his best work since that latter film, and it proves he can go places that most actors wouldn’t even understand, much more be able to go there.
There are many, many other solid performances in the film, and it can function as something of an actors’ showcase. Following three threads of the whole falling market story, the editing is sharp and intelligent. If there’s one fault, it’s that the quickness and acuity can occasionally fall into the film’s being just a little too smart-aleck (used for the sake of a G rating for this analysis) and smug for one’s good. It’s a risk the film takes, and one can’t fault it too much for being just a little too happy with itself as it cuts through layers of human graft and stupidity.
Philosophically and politically, after all the attitude and head-smacking, it ends on a profoundly depressing note. The little guy can’t win, there are conspiracies within conspiracies, and the big/rich guys have all the politicians and market leaders in their pockets. I would love to believe that this will be the opening salvo in a new wave of investigations and ethical reform. But I don’t. The film is a funny, smart, well acted reminder that we are all being played.