In a modern cinematic landscape that is packed to the rafters with superhero, sci-fi, and fantasy flicks, sometimes a movie based on a true story is refreshing, even if that movie tells the depressing story of the worst economic disaster the United States has seen is generations. Enter The Big Short – a film about four men in the game of finance who exposed the quagmire of greed and stupidity that eventually dragged the country down into the housing market crash of 2008.
Be forewarned – the movie addresses extremely complicated goings-on in the world of mortgages, banking and lending. I watched the film only once before writing this, and I’m still scratching my head. The film explains quite a bit – in both serious and humorous manners, but what actually happened is undoubtedly even more complex than what’s revealed between the credit scenes here. However, I’ll give it my best shot. It goes like this – the big banks got greedy and stupid, handing out mortgages like candy to people they knew could never pay them back. To make matters worse, they packed together terrible mortgages that couldn’t sell, got creditors to give those mortages AAA ratings, and then dumped them on unsuspecting home-buyers. The housing market quickly became rife with defaults on mortgages, foreclosures, and misery. The banking industry became oblivious to its own greed, a large and clueless segment of the American public lost everything, and the government stood by and watched it all happen. Every bit of this was real.
The disaster was not without its bedeviled heroes, however. Christian Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, a former physician who made his way into the financial arena by way of a job at a hedge fund. Burry, in real life, is the man who saw the whole thing coming, and decided to bet against, or “short” the banks when it all inevitably came crashing down. By purchasing “credit swaps” from the banks, Burry would be paid back in spades when the housing market took its dive. The big banks happily agreed, because nothing like what Burry was so adamant about had ever happened in American history. Bale, known for getting deep into his characters, plays Burry with a slate of tics and personality changes. Cocky in his surety of what was to transpire with the housing market (and also about how much money he stood to make), he throws knowing smirks and chuckles at the screen. Conversely, he nervously stutters his way through social interactions, revealing his complexity.
Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, who plays Jared Vennett, a young hotshot with Deutschebank, is fully arrogant. Gosling has played some challenging characters on film, but this is his bread and butter. Funny and maddeningly cocky, he hears of Burry’s plan and wants a piece of the action. He narrates much of the film, and also introduces one of the entertaining gags that breaks up the movie’s tension- a random celebrity explains the mind-boggling shit that goes on in the realm of finance in a much more easy-to-digest manner.
“Mortgage-backed securities, subprime loans, tranches…it’s pretty confusing, right? Does it make you feel bored, or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you just to leave them the fuck alone. So, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain,” Vennett says.
Then, sure enough, there’s Margot Robbie, sipping champagne in a bubble bath, giving you the skinny on subprime mortgage loans. Robbie, in her most adorable Australian accent, lets you know that “these risky mortgages are called subprime. So whenever you hear subprime, think SHIT.”
Brad Pitt is Ben Rickert, a retired finance rock star who is obsessed with seeds, and who reluctantly gets dragged back into the game by two young sharks looking to get a seat at the table. The main cast is rounded out by Steve Carrell, and I’m going to whip out a movie-critic-one-liner here and say that “Carrell is a revelation.” His character, Mark Baum, is a man who has had it with the pernicious greed displayed by the banking industry. Carrell turns in an emotional and heartbreaking performance, and fires a point blank summary of all the overly-complicated machinery that keeps the “one-percent” upon their perch. “We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball. What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice, or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short-sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.” That short monologue cuts through all the confusion presented by this movie, and by what actually happened in this country.
The Big Short is an enigma. The movie is often funny, thoroughly hip, and peppers in celebrities like Margot Robbie, master chef Anthony Bourdain, and pop star Selena Gomez to simplify all the bullshit. These tactics may be just what the viewer needs to gain even a basic level of understanding about what sailed over their heads before, during and after the housing market crash. Or, the jokes and the flashy “dumbing-down” could be distracting the same viewer from the anger they should be feeling about how this country destroyed thousands of lives. This film will make you laugh, will make you see, and should also make you very, very angry. The film’s writer, Adam McKay, pulls a gem out of his back pocket with this film, especially since this is his first film that does not feature Will Ferrell. Again, The Big Short is confusing, and may even be boring if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. But, pay attention, and you may learn something. You might also get so mad that you pop a blood vessel. Either way, you need to see this movie.
Do you feel what these men did was entirely unethical, indicative of the same greed that created this mess in the first place, or were they heroes, teaching the big wigs on Wall Street a harsh lesson? If you’ve seen the movie, let me know what you think in the comments section on this page!