Despite its bland boring title and a subject matter that doesn’t interest me in the least, this was probably the funniest movie about how greed, stupidity and self-interest ruin the world and nobody can do a bloody thing about it. It’s amazing how much I enjoyed it considering that half of the time I had no idea what on earth the characters were going on about. I have two siblings in finance but when a conversation turns to banking or economy it’s like my brain gets glazed over and all I can hear is, blah blah blah equity blah blah blah blah credit blah blah loans. The film makers were obviously perfectly aware of how dull banking is to an average person, and they do try to explain the jargon in very amusing ways (including Margot Robbie in a bathtub with a glass of bubbly), but while I got the general gist of things most of the nitty-gritty details sailed right over my head. What ultimately kept me interested was the film’s energy and humour and the eccentric cast of characters played by an impressive ensemble.
The story centres on the global financial crisis of 2008, and the industry insiders who foresaw what the media, government and big banks would not see – the collapse of the US housing market – and decided to profit from it. They include Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an antisocial hedge fund manager who blasts death metal in his office while wearing flip-flops; Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an abrasive, intense, no-bullshit moral crusader who’s got nothing but contempt for the Wall Street; a couple of young college buddies who want to play in the big league of banking; and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a slick cynical trader. As the movie plunges deeper into the world of banking and you get to meet all sorts of smug, insufferable, corrupt characters who rule it, you do root for our heroes to rub their faces into dirt and get rich at their expense. But at the same time, the film reminds you that this triumph would come at the expense of millions of ordinary people who lose their jobs, homes and even lives in the wake of the crisis, and the characters’ complete disillusionment with the system. The one scene that stuck in my mind the most was when Vennett points out to Baum and his team that as much as they act like cynical, hardened people, deep down they still believe in the system, and to see that belief and idealism utterly crushed by the end of the movie was quite heartbreaking.
While the final sombre scenes left me feeling depressed and disgusted, the rest of the film is quite often hilarious, even if sometimes it feels like it’s trying too hard to make banking fuuuuuuun, with the frenetic pop culture collages and touches that make it look like it’s aping The Wolf of Wall Street too much. As mentioned before, Steve Carrell’s character probably has the most pathos and he’s fantastic here; it’s also fun to watch Christian Bale in the role that trades so well on his essential strangeness. I liked Brad Pitt as well in his glamour-free turn as a mentor to the two young friends, but has anyone noticed how this is the second film he’s produced where he also appears as the voice of decency and morals? His character here is almost the same as in 12 Years a Slave.