Synopsis: Four denizens in the world of high-finance predict the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s, and decide to take on the big banks for their greed and lack of foresight. (From IMDb)
Review: No one expects a movie about a financial meltdown to be exciting. When I think about financial themed movies, I visualize poorly produced dramas with the quality of a Lifetime special. Financial markets are not sexy. Watching a stock broker make some highly charged phone calls and furiously click on a keyboard does not make for riveting viewing. However, The Big Short overcame all my prejudices and low expectations. Everything from the casting to the explanation of seemingly complex terms makes this movie incredibly enjoyable and thought provoking. After watching this, I think I will invest all my future earnings in gold and cows.
2008 brought about the bursting of the American housing market. Basically, house prices were insanely cheap and people were snapping up adjustable rate mortgages in order to afford to live in these mega mansions. However, a lot of these people should never have been approved for such enormous mortgages. As soon as housing prices and mortgage rates went up, a lot of people could no longer afford to live above their means. Hence, the bubble burst and the banks foreclosed on millions of houses. This leads to an enormous problem in the investing world. Mortgages are viewed as stable investments and form the backbone of most investment banks revenue. When millions of people default, the banks suddenly find themselves deep in the red. This led to massive layoffs, stock market crashes, government bailouts, and the closing of Lehman Brothers. All because a bunch of banks gave loans to people who could never repay such large principles.
Adapted from Michael Lewis’ bestselling book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine,” the film traces the roots of the global market collapse through the eyes of those who saw it coming and devised a way to make a profit by betting on the collapse. Several other movies have attempted to explain the 2008 financial crisis. There was the sober documentary Inside Job, the dramatic films Margin Call, and 99 Homes, which dealt with the long term consequences. The Big Short tackles the issues through comedy, drama, and the breaking of the fourth wall. This is definitely the most adventurous adaption of a non-fiction book about a dramatic and life altering event. Of course, underlying the slick presentation, there is a palpable sense of outrage and disgust with the entire system.
These real events are dramatized by an A-list cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Marisa Tomei. Bale portrays Dr. Michal Burry, a stock-picking guru with a glass eye, lack of social skills, and a penchant for walking around his office barefoot while crunching numbers and blaring rock music. Burry decides to painstakingly analyze the thousands of individual mortgages that make up the securities that prop up the banking industry. During this analysis, Burry realizes that an alarming number of subprime home loans are about to be defaulted and he decides to put more than a billion dollars of his clients’ money into credit default swap. Essentially, he is betting against the solvency of the housing market. Everyone thinks he is crazy. However, this investment is just crazy enough to attract the attention of alpha-banker Jared Vennett, wonderfully played by Ryan Gosling. He decides to do the same thing.
However, no one takes Vennett seriously. Until he dials a wrong number and ends up talking to Mark Baum, played by Steve Carell, a self-hating hedge fund manager with a short temper and even shorter fuse. Vennett and Baum go into the credit swap business, against the advice of pretty much everyone. Baum, a disaffected Wall Streeter, views this wager as the perfect expression of his contempt for the big banks, even though he technically works for one. The small time and new investment team of Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) decide to also bet against the housing market in a bid to join the big boys of investing. They recruit a former banker, played by Brad Pitt, to help them make the swaps. Pitt’s character encourages them to forget about Wall Street and invest in organic farming. They do not listen. I guess millions of dollars sounds more appealing than millions of heirloom tomato seeds.
Adam Mckay, the director, not only had to weave together all these narratives, but he also had to explain complex terms like “synthetic collateralized debt obligation.” Try saying that ten times fast. McKay resurrected an old movie technique of using on-screen to identify all the characters and spell out some of the investment jargon. Most people do not enjoy watching a bunch of hyper-agitated men yelling jargon at each other in glass conference rooms while trying not to punch each other. So, instead of having the characters explain all the jargon, McKay spliced in lightning-quick segments of modern pop icons to explain what everything meant. Margo Robbie, Selena Gomez, and Anthony Bourdain all appeared as themselves to explain certain terms. This breaking of the fourth wall helped keep the narrative interesting and made sure the characters were not bogged down with nonsensical lines in order to explain what everything meant. Also, it helped add some levity to the film.
Linking together all these narratives and serving as the movie guide, is the silky and foul mouthed Jared Vennett. This is Ryan Gosling’s first role in nearly three years. And he perfectly nails the seductive and smarmy Jared. Though, Gosling looks a lot better as a blonde. That dark brunette shade does him no favors. Regardless, Vennett breaks the fourth wall multiple times to explain that something did not quite really happen the way it is being shown or, more incredibly, that it actually did. Despite all the earnest and great performances, Carrell’s character Baum is the only one who manages to be sympathetic. Baum is also the only one who expresses disgust over getting rich off of a fiscal catastrophe. Steve Carrell is quickly proving his dramatic acting chops. Christian Bale was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the rather awkward Michael Burry.
Overall, The Big Short is one of the best financial films I have seen. And is one of the better dramas to come out of Hollywood in years. Movies do not always need superfluous sex scenes, big explosions, conspiracy theories, and ridiculously gorgeous people in order to be riveting. Even if you despise anything financial related, I would recommend watching this film or reading the book. It is an excellent ensemble drama and contains all the elements of a classic narrative.