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The Big Short (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

The Big Short

The Big Short


Starring Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Karen Gillan, Max Greenfield, Billy Magnussen, Melissa Leo, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Byron Mann, Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Richard Thaler and Selena Gomez.

Screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay.

Directed by Adam McKay.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures.  130 minutes.  Rated R.

Forget about vampires, ghosts, mad slashers and other assorted bogeymen.  The Big Short is by far the scariest film you are going to see this year.  And it’s all the more scary because it’s a true story.  One that affects every single person in the United States, and for that matter on the Earth.  Also, honestly, it’s a story that the great majority of people don’t really understand.

The Big Short is being sold as a comedy, and in some ways it is extremely funny.  Also, in some ways it does overdo some of the cartoonish aspects of its characters.  But don’t fool yourself, just because this film is written and directed by Adam McKay – who is best known for making dumb movies with Will Ferrell like Anchorman and Talladega Nights – that doesn’t mean that The Big Short has no teeth.  The Big Short would stand tall in the company of some of the great celluloid social satires – like Dr. Strangelove, Trading Places, The Wolf of Wall Street, Thank You For Smoking or In the Loop – if not for the fact that… again, this is a true story.  (Of course, The Wolf of Wall Street and Thank You For Smoking were based on true stories, too.)

Based on Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, this movie is about the 2008 financial crisis which had the world economy teetering on the brink of global collapse, a fate that we have not nearly escaped though it appears for now we have all dodged a bullet.

Of course, it goes without saying that all of the financial details which led to the collapse are highly complex – often intentionally complex – not the kind of thing that an average matinee patron is likely to know.  McKay uses a few techniques to give simple thumbnail explanations of concepts like “synthetic collateralized debt obligation” and “credit-default swaps,” either with voiceover explanations, definitions printed briefly on screen or having celebrities (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez) give brief detailed layman explanations of the concept.

So right off the bat, McKay has set himself up with an extraordinarily difficult task – to make an enjoyable comedy drama on an arcane subject most people don’t get and frankly are extremely confused by even when someone does explain it.  Due to this immediate narrative problem, McKay has a tendency to play up some of the eccentricities of his characters to make the film more palatable to an audience.

There are many characters here, but the main ones are as follow:

Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially inept, one-eyed numbers savant who listens to Mastodon while working out the fact that a huge amount of banks using bad mortgages for credit will inevitably lead to a housing bubble – and he has a way to exploit it for his own wealth.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a greasy banker who hears about Burry’s discovery and realizes that he is correct, so he starts fishing for traders to buy bonds which will essentially bet against the mortgages, and which become valuable only if they widely fail.

In his search, he stumbles upon (literally, they meet on a wrong-number call) Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a bond trader with anger-control issues who is sickened by the graft in his industry, but not so much so that he doesn’t eventually realize this can lead to him making a killing, as well as sticking a finger in the eye of big banking.

In the meantime two young traders Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) also stumble onto the scheme, and use a new-agey disgruntled former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get them entree to the halls of power.

(Note: Both Gosling and Carell’s characters are fictional, though Carell’s was supposedly based upon trader Steve Eisman.)

We all know what happened, essentially, though The Big Short makes clear the wanton recklessness and lack of conscience that led to the huge banking collapse.  It also points out again the simple if mostly unexamined truth – most of the people who were responsible for the calamity escaped with golden parachutes and no legal ramifications while the taxpayers paid to bail out their recklessness.

As one of the characters said towards the end: When the economy goes south and no one knows why, they “blame immigrants and poor people.”  Cue Donald Trump and Ted Cruz for their cameos in the sequel.

While some of this stuff is politically polarizing – is it a coincidence that the only really bad review I can find that the film got was in the ultra-conservative New York Post?– I would like to think that we can all agree that what these bankers did was shameful, corrupt and illegal.  Well, all of us except for the crooks who did the stealing.

Which brings to mind probably the biggest flaw with The Big Short.  The film expects us to like the characters in the film.  Mostly we do, even.  However, while they are preferable to the corrupt bankers who set the whole disaster in motion, for the most part they were completely content to get rich exploiting the financial loophole that the greedy banks had created.  Only two of them (Steve Carell and Brad Pitt’s characters) seemed to give a damn that while they were getting rich, millions of people were losing their jobs and their homes due to the very same rotten financial regulations that they were exploiting for profit.

Still, The Big Short is an important film.  We must not forget, because we are on the razor’s edge of it all coming around again.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: January 9, 2016.

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