The Big Short – A Review

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When I heard that Adam McKay (Funny or Die, Anchorman) was directing a movie about the 2008 economic collapse, I was a little confused. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of humor in what happened on Wall Street, so I wasn’t quite sure what McKay was bringing to the table. The man who brought us Ron Burgundy wasn’t the person that I expected to adapt Michael Lewis’ book about the housing credit bubble finally bursting. However, McKay had assembled an all-star cast and I’ve enjoyed all the other adaptations of Lewis’ books, so I figured that there was something to this project that I just wasn’t seeing that would make this partnership make sense.

Turns out that McKay might have been the perfect person for this job, as The Big Short finds humor in the lunacy of the behavior that contributed to the recent recession while at the same time educating the viewer on what things like subprime loans, CDOs and bond ratings are without being boring. The Big Short will make you laugh, make you angry, and make you smarter about economics all at the same time – no small feat. It’s rare when a cast of such famous people can all disappear into their roles, but Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt do just that. The Big Short will make you chuckle, but this is not necessarily a comedy; there is a slow burn of anger that is simmering just under the surface of this film and if you don’t walk out of this film a little more outraged than when you walked in, there is no hope for this country.

The Big Short tells the story about a handful of investors who saw what so many people missed or willfully ignored – the pending housing collapse caused by banks giving out loans like candy to people, many of whom were in over their heads financially. Hedge Fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) crunches the numbers and realizes that the housing market is being artificially supported by a series of subprime loans; when interest rates on these loans increase in 2008, Burry predicts that there will be many people who will default on their mortgages. He approaches numerous banks and asks to essentially bet against the housing market; the banks, believing that the housing market is secure and that this is easy money for them, accept this offer with no thought to the potential catastrophic economic impact that will result if Burry is right. Other investors, including Jared Vennett (Gosling), Mark Baum (Carell), Charlie Geller (John Magano) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) hear about Burry’s investment and agree with his analysis. Further analysis by Baum’s team lends further credibility to Burry’s predictions – rating agencies are inflating ratings on bad loans to keep the bank’s business and that mortgage brokers are not even conducting preliminary background checks on potential loan recipients. All the investors bet against the market and essentially profiting from the pending economic meltdown that will cost thousands of people their job, their pensions and their homes.

This could have been an extremely boring film, but the development of the personalities of the individual investors helps keep this film from feeling like an economics lecture from Ben Stein. Christian Bale’s Murray is definitely an eccentric – a former M.D., he analyzes trends while barefoot and blaring heavy metal – and that gives Bale a lot to work with. Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert serves as the conscious of the film, reminding his friends Geller and Shipley that their profit will come at the expense of a lot of people’s suffering. Steve Carell’s character is full of self-righteous anger at a system that is not only fiddling while Rome burns, but irresponsibly throwing gasoline on the fire.

The film also uses an innovative technique to explain some of the more technical terms and concepts that contributed to the collapse; it breaks the fourth wall and uses celebrity cameos to provide insight into what these intentionally confusing words actually mean. I have a degree in economics, so I’m probably a more willing audience than most, but having Margot Robbie in a bubble bath explaining sub-prime loans is perhaps the most accessible way to make people understand what exactly was happening. Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez are used similarly (minus the bathtub). These bits are of course humorous, but they are also educational; I walked out of The Big Short with a much clearer picture of how the economic recession of 2008 came to pass. And the more that you understand what happened, the more incensed you become. If you weren’t already mad at bankers for their role in the collapse, you will be after The Big Short, especially after you are reminded how little they paid for their negligent behavior. The Big Short may mine the crisis for laughs, but make no mistake about it that this film also wants you to be infuriated as well. The film smartly doesn’t lecture, but  under the farcical behavior  there is an undercurrent of anger that eventually becomes palpable.

Some other thoughts:

  • This film is lucky enough to boast all-star actors in even the smallest of performances; Oscar winner Melissa Leo briefly appears as an employee at the rating agency. Marissa Tomei also has a small part as Carrell’s wife.
  • I’m really only familiar with Finn Wittrock from his work on American Horror Story, so I was kind of conditioned to think that when he appeared he was going to kill everyone. Sadly, he didn’t slice up even one banker, which would have made for an even more satisfying movie.
  • I would 100% sign up for an economics class taught by Anthony Bourdain.
  • This shouldn’t be a deciding factor in seeing the film, but Gosling and Pitt have much less screen time than Carrell and Bale.
  • Bale’s character rocks out to Metallica in the movie, which makes him aces in my book.
  • Even though you are rooting for all the investors in the film, they aren’t heroes. They all profit from this broken system, with varying impacts on their consciences. In a way, they are the lesser of two evils.

The Big Short manages to do what many people would think is unthinkable – create a movie that doubles as both entertainment and an economics lecture. The stellar cast and smart directing choices makes The Big Short an immensely watchable film that also serves as a primer for understanding why the global recession of 2008 occurred. It’s a fun, yet frustrating movie, since it is clear that because so few people were held accountable for their role in the collapse, they continue their dangerous practices, just under another name. The Big Short is a smart and funny movie that will also make you angry. It’s a heist movie, a satire and true crime, all rolled into one.

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