Movie review: The Big Short
Capitalizing on his comedy savvy talent, director-writer Adam McKay turns Wall Street’s crooked ways into a fragmented farce that makes us laugh at our own funeral
The Big Short
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt
Directed by: Adam McKay
Running time: 130 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
Turning the crash of 2008 into a quasi-comedic adventure seems like a fool’s game, but then again, you could argue the very same thing about the stock market — which is why The Big Short works as well as it does, albeit with a few caveats, dear emptor.
An illustrated and abridged version of journalist and author Michael Lewis’s book outlining not just the crash of 2008, but the buildup of the housing bubble, the creation of the credit default swap market and the cumulative arrogance of Wall Street’s masters of the universe, The Big Short desperately wants the viewer to understand how the international banking system works — without putting us to sleep.
It’s a daunting task considering most of us don’t know the difference between a CDO and our big toe, but Lewis, who also wrote The Blind Side and Moneyball, did most of the heavy lifting in his award-winning bestseller because he approached it from a completely different angle.
Instead of tackling the bulls and bears head-on, he looked at a small group of outsider investors who didn’t believe any of the bafflegab coming out of the big banks and bet against Wall Street’s collective wisdom.
“You’re saying Alan Greenspan is wrong?” asks one of the skeptics with a hint of ridicule. “Yes,” comes the matter-of-fact reply from one of our unlikely heroes, and that’s sort of how this movie marches through the swamp of data and statistics and nicely packaged cow patties that is Wall Street. Screenwriters Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, who also directs, borrow Socratic form to create fictionalized dialogues between characters that decrypt the acronyms and doublespeak that tend to obfuscate simple facts with fancy language — whether its medicine, the market or mass systems of belief.
Every institution has an entitled group sitting at the top, and historically speaking, they tend to be highly unpopular among the masses. McKay exploits this natural dislike with great success as he places big hedge fund managers in various glass offices, then gives the viewer a torch and pitchfork in the form of our outsider investors.
Leading the small but angry mob is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a former brain surgeon with a glass eye and a touch of Aspergers who saw the future. Burry’s Scion Capital took a closer look at the run on subprime mortgages and realized most of the investments were just recycled garbage, packaged with a pretty label that had blue chip connotations: Mortgages were supposed to be the safest investment of all since no one wants to lose their home. But Burry didn’t buy it, and convinced the banks to create an investment that would allow him to profit if his hunch was right.
This is where the movie begins, with Bale’s Burry lifting his torch in a quiet gesture of revolt that no one on Wall Street took seriously. With perfect hindsight, we know he’s right — which immediately makes him sympathetic, if not somewhat heroic — but we need the conflict to fuel the movie’s dramatic engine.
We also need a few more fake Socratic exchanges to give us the whole picture, and for this, we get a host of extra characters who hop on the big short bus.
Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, a character based on the real-life Steve Eisman, a money manager with a strange degree of self-loathing. Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, a fictionalized version of Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann. And Brad Pitt plays Ben Rickert, the movie star version of Ben Hockett, a veteran trader who helped a tiny hedge fund secure enough leverage to bet against the big boys.
It’s a motley Wall Street crew, and thanks to McKay’s rebel approach, he creates scenes that allow a certain amount of morality to bleed into the picture without being too preachy. If anything, morality is the hidden comic foil — as well as its tragic understudy — in this movie from the frequent Will Ferrell collaborator who gave us Anchorman and Talladega Nights.
For instance, one scene shows Burry trying to convince the banks to sell him credit default swaps. They look at him like he’s a total rube and take his money with a patronizing smirk, but we know these morally bankrupt dweebs will be packing bankers’ boxes and escorted from the building within months.
Another scene features Carell having a fancy dinner with a Wall Street mogul and choking on every word that comes out of his table-mate’s mouth because it’s so unfathomably immoral to get paid fees by a bank to knowingly sell bad investments to one’s clients. But, as this movie paints it, that’s exactly what happened as the big money managers got rich selling garbage under the SEC’s plugged nose.
It was all a house of cards, and yes, because this movie realizes we’re all a lot dumber than we think, it actually gives us a house of cards visual aid (actually, it’s more like Jenga, but you get the picture): The ever-charismatic Ryan Gosling explains how mortgage bonds became so popular, the banks needed to meet demand by throwing in bad loans as filler. When the bad loans default, the whole thing collapses.
“What’s that?” asks Steve Carell’s Baum as the blocks scatter across the boardroom table. “That is the American housing market,” answers Gosling’s Vennett.
It’s just one of the tools director McKay employs in his bid to help us understand how we were all played for suckers. He also includes a variety of vignettes that break the fourth wall, such as a bit with Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) addressing the camera in a bubble bath, and a scene of Anthony Bourdain making fish soup with three-day old halibut.
It’s fun and it’s clever and it amounts to a colourful and fast-paced primer on the smoke and mirrors that make up Wall Street, but not all the illustrations succeed in denuding what should make us frantically angry: The system was designed to fail at the taxpayer’s expense. Institutionalized fraud robbed people of their homes and pensions, and nobody in power cared because protecting the common good demands regulation, and thanks to Reagan, “regulation” became synonymous with “red tape,” which may as well mean “Communism” since it stands in the way of “free enterprise.”
At this point in time, if a politician talks about “regulation,” they’re signing their own death sentence, which means nothing will ever change. And that’s why there’s anger behind every syllable of dialogue and a soundtrack that consists of speed metal, crashing drums and violent screaming. It’s all part of the film’s agitated mood and fragmented narrative style.
It uses humor to make it palatable, but it’s a smile steeped in cynicism and a sense of hopelessness — a cheeky wink as we all walk toward the gas chamber. Both Pitt and Carell’s characters try to articulate the tragedy, and the millions who will suffer, but it feels like an afterthought — and a little out of character — because for the most part, these are unlikable people who care about money more than anything else.
They are not interesting. They are not sexy. They are not nice. Yet, we root for them anyway because we all love an underdog winner, and perhaps, that’s McKay’s biggest coup: He pulls off a big short of his own by seducing us into betting against ourselves because he understands the power of human greed. It’s a graceful sleight of hand, but it’s not emphatic because we’re not emotionally engaged as much as we’re trying to keep up with the lesson plan.
Ironically, despite all the chatter surrounding Carell’s transformation and potential Oscar run, it’s the two detached characters who prove the most engaging: Gosling’s shark and Bale’s Asperger-afflicted hedge fund manager. These two are under no illusions about what they’re doing, and they aren’t trying to soft-sell their own self-interest as moral outrage. Bale and Gosling let all that come through, without worrying about their sympathy level with the audience, which makes them feel like the only real people in the whole movie.
Everyone else feels like a walking prop in an elaborate financial play that reads as farce. And given McKay’s credits, and the complete lack of regulatory oversight of the banking and investment community, farce was probably the right tone — even if it means laughing at your own funeral.
Watch the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgqG3ITMv1Q
THE EX-PRESS, December 23, 2015