Adam McKay's film is a ragged, jolting, and savagely funny guerrilla agitprop that gives after-the-fact credit to the financial crises Cassandras.
The Big ShortDirector: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt, Adepero Oduye, Melissa Leo, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Marisa Tomei, Tracey Letts, Max Greenfield
Studio: Paramount Pictures
US date: 2015-12-23 (Limited release)
UK date: 2016-01-22 (General release)
So who blew up the economy back in 2007? One answer that’s often shouted on talk radio and social media is a moralistic tale about how poor (minority) folks took out mortgages they couldn’t afford, which caused the financial collapse, after which sober-minded middle-class (white) taxpayers had to pay for all those bad mortgages by bailing out the banks. It’s the Ant and the Grasshopper fable reengineered with Tea Party fury.
Adam McKay's blistering, righteously funny The Big Short offers another answer. Based on Michael Lewis’ sharp chisel of a nonfiction bestseller about the guys who predicted the collapse and couldn’t believe that nobody wanted to know, it's a story of misfit heroes, larger-than-life villains, and helpless victims. It's the comedy that Michael Moore could have made about the financial crisis if he had a sense of humor. It’s also a tragedy about how an “atomic bomb of greed and stupidity” blew everything to hell but couldn’t stop everyone from going right back to business as usual.
The Big Short assumes correctly that most people still don’t get what happened. Just like Lewis’ book, it lays out the major players and the basics of the story with a crisp attention to comic detail and a knowingly sarcastic awareness of how tangled financial terminology makes everyone’s eyes glaze over.
In 2005, Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a heavy metal-loving hedge fund manager with a glass eye, does something brokers don't usually do with all the debt vehicles they’re buying, selling, and shorting: he actually reads the prospectuses to see what lies they're telling. He also looks into the millions of home loans that make up CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations).
Realizing the CDOs are full of default-ready subprime mortgages, Burry shorts the skyrocketing real-estate market, betting that its bubble will eventually burst. He does this even though the received Wall Street wisdom says that real estate values never go down. Why? Because whenever people are making enough money, rational dissections of any bubble's lack of sustainability are always treated as the skunk at the garden party.
While Burry stakes out his lonely position, two other bands of brokers with better people skills pick up on his research. After getting past their assumption that Burry has to be wrong because somebody must be minding the store at the big investment banks, they become unwilling converts to reality.
The more engaging of the two groups is a small, scrappy fund of Wall Street outsiders headed up by Mark Baum (Steve Carell). A tragedy-haunted and dark-eyed pessimist, Baum can’t believe that the booming economy is teetering on bad debt that’s about to vaporize. Taking a research trip down to the same suburban Florida badlands that Michael Shannon scoured for housing carrion in 99 Homes, Baum’s team meets slick and callow mortgage brokers who barely comprehend the policies they’re throwing out like confetti (one brags, “I used to be a bartender!”) and a stripper who owns five houses.
Assuming that their discovery of the bubble is about to burst will be hailed as a news scoop, Baum's crew finds that nobody is interested. The market bulls and their financial-press cheerleaders brush all concerns aside as they march in lockstep towards collapse. They all assume they’ve figured out the magic trick to easy riches, and that even if the core of the market is rotten, it doesn’t matter. As one of Baum’s guys puts it, surveying the complacent scene at a securitzation conference on the eve of disaster, “It’s like somebody hit a piñata filled with white guys who suck at golf.” The lazy arrogance is so overwhelming that Baum’s permanent migraine rage seems an increasingly logical response.
The third group to figure out what's happening is a pair of youngsters mentored by Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), an apocalypse-minded investor who's lost the ability to be shocked by financial world idiocy. While Rickert’s guys come to the same conclusions as everybody else, his long-term outlook casts an even-darker pall. To Rickert, people’s inability to learn from their mistakes is a given. So while Baum frets and raves, Rickert opines from the sidelines with a sour sense of tragedy, like a one-man Greek chorus.
Rickert isn’t alone. All of these players see what's happening and can’t do anything to stop it. The Big Short uses their stories as well as a series of carefully selected commentators who burst through the fourth wall to show the rest of us. Chief among its messengers is a doe-eyed and razor-tongued Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett, a mortgage trader who walks the audience through the crisis’ cascading Rube Goldbergian machinery of interlocking financial time bombs. Anthony Bourdain also addresses the camera, using fish stew to illustrate a point about wrapping bad debt inside a thin skin of better debt.
The most colorful of the celebrity guides is Margot Robbie, who sips champagne in a bubble bath while defining CDOs. This scene is a decent tongue-in-cheek gag, and Robbie's part in it lets The Big Short take a swipe at The Wolf of Wall Street, which, like so many other narratives about the financial world, treats it as just another boys-will-be-boys adventure of canny hucksterism. That approach to corruption presents the crooks as charismatic anti-heroes, duping all those suckers and rubes who just don’t deserve as big of a slice of the American pie as the predators willing to break all the rules for it.
With such precision targeting, The Big Short expands McKay's range. It's a welcome break from his Will Ferrell comedies and "Funny or Die" shorts, delivering one of the most stinging satires to hit American movie screens in far too long. It takes his love of jolting comedic Dadaism and obscenity-laced tirades, along with the nascent progressive mentality that had always been an uncomfortable fit in his cameo-packed comedies, and marries it with sly montages of a poverty-stricken and pop culture-blinded America.
The result is ragged, jolting, and savagely funny guerrilla agitprop that gives after-the-fact credit to these financial Cassandras. But the film doesn’t turn their prescience into a triumph. It grants them no comfort in being right about the idiocy that ruined the lives of so many people. They would much rather have been wrong.