The Big Short is a brilliant black comedy that unpicks the crash of 2008 and resists the urge to create heroes, instead pointing out that even the good guys were out to make a fast buck, writes Alistair Harkness. Also reviewed is martial arts thriller The Assassin
The Big Short (15) | Rating: **** | Directed by Adam McKay | Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
One of the more surprising aspects of Anchorman director Adam McKay’s hilarious 2010 Mark Wahlberg/Will Ferrell vehicle The Other Guys was its plot’s sly deconstruction of the 2008 financial crisis. Revolving around a pair of disrespected cops who uncover massive financial fraud while their glory-seeking colleagues repeatedly unleash city-levelling mayhem combating low-level street crime, the film’s satirical subtext may not have been fully appreciated at the time, but its Michael Moore-style end credits – McKay began his career writing for Moore’s TV show The Awful Truth – made the joke explicit by illustrating the mind-boggling criminality that led to the collapse of the global economy. Looking back, it also pointed the way towards McKay’s newest film, a brash, funny, polemical adaptation of Moneyball author Michael Lewis’s terrific non-fiction account of the financial misfits who saw what was really going on in the housing market and made billions betting against the bubble. The Big Short – which is up for five Oscars, including best film and best director – may use a lot of gimmickry, humour and showy performances to penetrate the deliberately disingenuous lingo of the acronym-obsessed world of high finance, but it does so for a reason: to break it down and explain it to us in an intelligent way once and for all. This isn’t a subtly drawn drama like JC Chandor’s terrifying Margin Call, nor is it an empty Wolf of Wall Street-style revel in the bacchanalian excess accompanying banking’s transformation from a boring fiduciary occupation to a profligate one of outright degeneracy. Its comedic flourishes – which include breaking the fourth wall, celebrity cameos and oodles of irony – collectively function as a sort spoonful of cinematic sugar, helping some pretty tough medicine go down.
Kicking off with a prologue detailing the invention of the mortgage backed securities that, decades later, would destroy the economy, the film proceeds to intertwine three stories from the mid-2000s of Wall Street outsiders who didn’t buy into the fallacy that the housing market couldn’t fail. In a nifty move that subtly reinforces the moral tone without draining the film of fun, McKay has an odious investment banker, played by Ryan Gosling, narrate their stories. Permed and perma-tanned, his character, Jared Vennett, works for a bank but, crucially, he doesn’t think like a bank. Indeed, in a sign of how screwed up the industry is he’s openly working against employers, trying to topple the Jenga-like towers of bad loans they’ve constructed in an effort to make even more money. It’s through him we’re introduced to his fellow outliers. First up is Christian Bale’s anti-social, one-eyed money manager Michael Burry (the only character who’s name hasn’t been changed for the purpose of the film). He’s the first to actively convince head-in-the-sand investment banks to sell him insurance bonds against subprime mortgages going bad. The banks think he’s a joke, but they’re happy to take his money and it’s not long before a combination of rumours and happenstance alerts Vennett and Steve Carell’s outraged hedge-fund manager Michael Baum – along with a pair of callow amateur investors (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) being helped by Brad Pitt’s sage-like former banker – to this anomalous way of viewing the otherwise Byzantine system propping up the economy.
As with the book, the film attributes their out-of-the-box thinking to various personality defects that have made them ill-suited for front-line corporate life. Though fictionalised slightly, they’re all fairly true to their real-life counterparts, something McKay reinforces by having characters frequently turn to the camera to tell us that “this really happened”. That’s a flourish reminiscent of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People and McKay further pushes the form by bringing on celebrities to explain complicated financial terminology. In a reference to The Wolf of Wall Street, for instance, Margot Robbie pops up in bubble bath to lay out what a subprime mortgage is, while actress, popstar and former girlfriend of Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, partners up with economic theorist Richard Thaler to explain the concept behind a synthetic collateralised debt obligation – the fraudulent financial product that caused the economy to meltdown on a global scale. It’s an ingenious move, clarifying impenetrable terminology while also making a point about the way trivial celebrity issues often command our attention more than things that actually adversely affect our quality of life.
The high profile cast is part of that too, but McKay doesn’t valourise the characters. We root for them, but the film makes clear they’re part of the system, hypocritically profiting from the real pain they’re fully aware is on the horizon. The Big Short may be a comedy, but it never forgets that the joke was on us.
The Assassin (12A) | Rating: ** | Directed by: Hou Hsiao-Hsien | Starring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen
The action of The Assassin comes in short, sharp, barely revealed bursts, but the air of condescension swirling through Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first foray into martial arts filmmaking prevents its heroine – or the film – from really taking flight. That seems to be entirely deliberate on Hsiao-Hsien’s part. Where previous arthouse doyens such as Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) have embraced the artistry and pulpy intensity of the wuxia genre (roughly speaking: period martial arts dramas), Hsiao-Hsien – having spent seven years working on this film – seemingly has little energy or reverence for the form, preferring to concentrate his filmmaking eye on exquisitely composed shots of nothing in particular – or nothing that comes close to providing any dramatic heft. That’s too bad, because on paper it’s hard not to salivate at a plot that revolves around a female assassin trained by a nun since childhood to kill. A black-and-white prologue – shot in boxy academy ratio – introduces us to this unusual protagonist. The setting is ninth-century China and we see Nie Yinniang (played by Hsiao-Hsien regular Shu Qi) make her first kill only to fail her second test. “You have mastered the sword, but your heart lacks resolve,” Yinnaing’s mistress scolds her after she decides not to terminate a deserving target because he’s in the presence of his child. “First kill the one he loves, then kill the man,” continues her mistress, before sending her home on a mission to dispatch a government official. Said official (played by Chang Chen) is also her cousin, as well as her one-time betrothed, which sets the scene for the existential journey that follows as Yinnaing is forced to reckon with the life that was stolen from her as she confronts the emotional turmoil of a mission that necessitates killing someone she knows in order to bring balance to a rebellious province. The film transfers to colour here and the screen briefly widens before contracting again, like ellipses, hemming us into a world in which any excitement is unfurling on the fringes, out of our line of vision. Action scenes that don’t begin and end abruptly, for instance, play out in far-away woods, shot from a distance. Courtly intrigue that should provide us with compelling performances plays out instead in overheard conversations, the participants’ motivations remaining forever mysterious. Hsiao-Hsien is perhaps trying to unlock some mystery in the martial arts genre by pushing everything associated with it out of the frame, but what’s left is of little aesthetic or intellectual interest. The Assassin targets cinematic pleasure and kills it stone dead.