WITH big-name stars and early Oscar buzz over Steve Carell’s performance as a banker conflicted about the global financial meltdown, The Big Short is generating both hype and mixed reviews.
The film closed this week’s AFI Fest in Los Angeles, a festival that often plays a crucial role in shaping the intense competition for Oscar’s coveted golden statuettes.
The subject of the film, which was screened late Thursday, is not the easiest: making sense of the complex financial roots of the 2007-2008 debacle that saw stock markets and big financial institutions teetering near collapse.
But The Big Short, a Brad Pitt production, deploys its considerable star power — including Pitt, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling — to untangle the crisis through the skillful telling of very human stories.
Carell, nominated for a best actor Oscar for his haunting portrayal of deranged millionaire John DuPont in the 2014 film Foxcatcher, plays the part of a clear-eyed but depressive banker, one of the few to suffer guilt pangs as the financial catastrophe unfolded, costing millions of Americans their jobs, savings or homes.
The crisis has already spawned several films, including Margin Call, depicting the failure of a bank seemingly modeled after Lehman Brothers, 99 Homes, on the evictions following the subprime mortgage crisis, and “Inside Job,” which won the 2011 Oscar as best documentary film.
The Big Short, adapted from the book of the same name by the financial writer Michael Lewis, adopts a tragicomic tone in describing how a real estate bubble in the United States — the famous subprime crisis — led to the near collapse of the global financial system.
The film, set for a December 23 release, uses humor and clear language to explain the obscure jargon of bankers and financiers, like the film’s title, which comes from the expression “to short sell” — essentially, to profit through a bet that a share price will decline.
The film turns to the young Australian actress Margot Robbie, nude in a bubble bath, to explain that “subprime” means a loan to a borrower with poor or nonexistent credit.
“When you hear ‘subprime,’ think shit,” she says.
The chef, food writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain explains that a CDO, or Collateralized Debt Obligation, allows holders to fob off risky home loans on inattentive investors, much in the way a restaurant recycles less-than-fresh fish in a stew.
“It’s not old fish anymore,” he says. “It becomes a whole new dish.”
The film is well-stocked with satirical characterizations: Bale plays the part of Michael Burry, the real-life American manager of the hedge fund Scion Capital, who was one of the first to recognize the looming disaster … and who profited from it.
Gosling plays the arrogant and venal manager of another hedge fund, while Pitt plays a savvy but somber investor.
Other characters include a unscrupulous pair who brag about giving loans to illiterate immigrants with poor credit; and an erotomaniac employee of the Security and Exchange Commission, the American agency overseeing stock trading, who is obsessed with landing a job in an investment bank.
The Hollywood Reporter called the film “wearisome” and “far overlong,” while Variety says that it turned “a dense economics lecture into a hyper-caffeinated postmodern farce.”
But the Oscar prediction site Goldderby.com puts Carell among the 10 actors most likely to win the acting award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it places the film in the top 15.
Oscar nominations are to be announced in mid-January, and the ceremony is set for February 28.