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Wall Street Revisited

The Big Short is close to what Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street would have been with a social conscience added and an hour of running time subtracted; it even features a naked Margot Robbie in the bath and highly simplified explanations of capitalist financial markets. It’s effective because its main three elements work very well, and director Adam McKay and the cast – including Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt – are responsible for two of these.

The first is, as mentioned, the high degree of stylisation that breaks the fourth wall, lightens talk about sub-primes with Jenga metaphors and generally makes everything most people hate bearable. Documenting the financial crisis of 2008 is one thing; making it fun is something else entirely.

The second, a much more significant strength, is the cast. The only real criticism that can be levelled in this area is the fact that the Wall Street setting means it is almost exclusively male. Christian Bale, whose performance as a slightly obsessive fund manager could easily have verged into a pastiche of the cinematic ‘mathematical genius’ stereotype, is instead just eccentric enough to be believable. Steve Carell, likewise playing a banker with a reason to hate the system, offers bitterness that veils a much deeper sadness, grounding the film in some social responsibility. Every time you catch yourself laughing at a landlord who registered a property in his dog’s name, or when Schmidt from New Girl pops up playing a frat-boy mortgage broker with all the morality of a… well, a mortgage broker. Carell’s performance reminds you that not everyone will be able to weather the storm as well as all those people carrying cardboard boxes out of Lehman Brothers. At one point, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) notes a statistic that for every one per cent unemployment rise in the USA, 40,000 people die.

I had no in-depth understanding of the financial crisis before I started watching, and by the end I had a pretty solid impression – I couldn’t quite believe it at first, and was skeptical, but my philosophy and economics and PPEist friends reassured me that The Big Short is pretty accurate. Their reassurance offers a perfect introduction to the final key factor in The Big Short’s punchy effect: its real-life setting. Setting a film in a financial crisis whose effects are still being felt today, but focusing on the few people who did well out of it and how they felt as a result, allows McKay to balance the delicate scales of entertainment and factual accuracy.

It will undoubtedly differ from person to person, but the main impression I got of the situation was that I was just glad I was only 13 in the summer of 2008, or I would have been incredibly angry; as it is, this film just left me feeling a little bit more empty and a lot more left-wing, for better or worse. Moreover, The Big Short makes one thing very clear: this will happen again. The only real question is, will those responsible get away with it?

If this film is anything to go by, the situation looks pretty dire.

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