THE BIG SHORT is an engagingly enjoyable, morally tawdry film. It’s the dramatization of Michael Lewis’ book of the same name (so the characters are real but their names have been changed, presumably for legal reasons). It tells the horror story of the build up to and eventual collapse of the US housing market (with the rest of the world economies falling like puffed up dominoes). It’s a story of boastful greed, criminal fraud, smug hubris and thick- headed stupidity that left eight million unemployed and six million homeless.
Just another day at the office.
Director Adam McKay (Anchorman 1 and 2, Talladega Nights) hangs his tale around a triad of banker/investors, all of whom either figure out or stumble upon what’s happening in the real estate business. The story begins with Michael Burry (a compellingly watchable Christian Bale); he’s an autistic numbers-crunching hedge fund genius, with barely tolerable social skills and an unerring nose for reading the market. He is the one who sniffed out that the entire housing market was, essentially, a giant scam: fraudulent agents giving away mortgages to insolvent people; bundling and covering up these potential bad debts with other seemingly more secure mortgages, then selling them on from bank to bank and everything operating under the approval of the two corrupt ratings agencies, Moody’s and the S & P.
His bright idea, that’s seen as ludicrously dumb by the banking potentates who control the money (how can he be right and everyone else wrong?) is to bet against (or short) the market… The more the market collapses, the more money he’d make.
He’s not the only one to read the tea leaves: Mark Baum (a permanently stressed out, pissed off Steve Carell) with an axe to grind against a system he’s part of and detests (his group work under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley) stumbles onto the truth, which they confirm when he and his team visit some of the new housing markets (and the boastful estate agents).
They discover the horrible reality of shuttered homes, properties on sale at knocked down prices, rising unemployment and mortgages being given away to the indigent.
An equally lucky duo of small-time investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Witrock) coached by an ex-market trader, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt whose production company Plan B produced the movie…as it did Twelve Years a Slave) also figure out what’s happening.
They all bet against the market with the big banks and investment companies (the gang’s all there: Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs etc… the villains of the piece) greedily regarding them as motley fools with money easy for the taking.
And, well, you know where it all ended up.
Director McKay treats the whole sorry affair not as tragedy but (rightly…since you either cut your wrists or laugh) as Black Comedy. The odd song and dance routine are thrown in to underline some of his points; and he offers up the brilliant device of deliberate cutting away from the story to jokey vignettes (such as Margot Robbie in her bath sipping campaign or Anthony Bourdain in his kitchen) to explain those obtuse financial products, like collateralized debt swaps etc.
It’s a fine piece of entertainment and a damning critique of the banking system (that, the movie tartly observes, remains unrepentantly unchanged); and it’s an inventive way of turning a documentary into a drama.
But the base material (a piece of economics journalism…Michael Lewis also wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side) remains a dramatic strait jacket. Despite a few cursory nods (the under-used Marisa Tomei tries to humanize Steve Carell’s character) you don’t really get to know any of the characters as people (unlike the far superior Margin Call). They remain ‘types’: the amoral nerd, the gauche college drop-outs, the aggrieved manager, the womanizing rich guys etc. In the end, what matters is the morality tale…we don’t really know – or are made to care – much about all the characters involved. But the tenor of the tale certainly has us rooting for them. After all, they were smart (in a world of idiots), they outfoxed the banks and –ta da! – made a ton of money betting on the collapse of the world economy. Is McKay insinuating that in the moral climate of the world of banks, these men were the best of a bad lot? Their certainty and self-belief certainly comes across as heroic (we’re supposed to root for the small man against the big corporation).
And the movie’s coda: that only one person was sent to jail, that nothing has changed and that we’re heading for a fall again would lead you to believe The Big Short is on the side of the angels.
But hang on here: like their banking antagonists, the (real life) protagonists were risking billions… of their clients’ money. They come across as knights in some sort of shining armour….but really they were just as amoral and money hustling as the other bunch of amoral money hustling, even badder guys. Or so we assume: they’re all shown as having higher goals than simply making money and laughing at the world as it collapsed.
But this entire enterprise (an anti-bank movie funded by banks featuring bankers as ‘heroes’) is all just a bit too specious for my taste.
The Big Short: DIRECTOR: Adam McKay. WITH: Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt. SCREENPLAY: Charles Randolph, Adam McKay, Michael Lewis (book). CINEMATOGRAPHER: Barry Ackroyd