The Big Short (dir. Adam McKay)

Posted: January 13, 2016 in Uncategorized

“The Big Short” does the best job of explaining the 2008 financial crisis of just about any film has since.  Sometimes it’s using Jenga blocks, sometimes it resorts to Margot Robbie in a bathtub or Selena Gomez playing poker, but the fact remains that this comedy explains a somewhat complicated issue involving a lot of terms people aren’t familiar with (Mortgage-backed securities, subprime, CDOs, etc) and makes them easily graspable for the layman. If nothing else, “The Big Short” deserves credit for finding a clear and fun way to explain an important topic for people. I’d also argue the film makes itself mandatory viewing because of it.  The great thing about the film is that, beyond that, it’s one of the best films of 2015.


So what caused the 2008 financial crisis?  In a nutshell, people in the banking industry started packing bad mortgages (ones with high interest rates given to people who could never afford them) into bundles that were sold and traded on the market. Because no one was paying attention to the big picture, that eventually these mortgages would default and tank the bundles, people were content to make a lot of short term money until those defaults happened.  In addition, even crappier mortgages with bad credit ratings were bundled together into CDOs, and the credit agencies gave these bundles good ratings they didn’t deserve because, well, the credit agencies are private and are paid by the banks to rate their products, making it in their best business interests to rate everything very high (AAA) regardless of if the rating is deserved. Combined with “side-bets” made on the CDOs (Synthetic CDOs), and a Federal Reserve run by Ayn Rand fan Alan Greenspan that didn’t pump the breaks when the housing market was suspiciously booming and well, the entire economy was built on a house of cards.  The film does a better job of explaining all of this than I just did, trust me.


Enter Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a super-Aspie hedge fund manager who actually looks at the individual mortgages in these bundles, sees that they will eventually default (in 3 years or so) and realizes he can make a profit for his clients if he finds a way to, in a sense, bet against the housing market.  This leads to the creation of what became known as a credit-default swap for the housing market. Basically, if the housing market continued to be successful, Burry would need to keep paying the banks he bought these swaps at.  But if the housing market tanked, well, he’d stand to make billions.  The problem is, well, everyone on Earth at the time thought the housing market was solid and that Burry was crazy, and with about 3 years til the time Burry projected the market would crash, well, his clients didn’t want to spend 3 years paying extra premiums in the event that his hunch was right.


Soon, others on Wall Street hear about what Burry is doing, and while most dismiss Burry as a fool, others decide to investigate, seemingly reach Burry’s conclusions for themselves, and want to also position themselves to make a profit. There’s Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who wants to sell swaps to other investors with more money and collect a nice finder’s fee/booking fee for it.  There’s Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a hedge fund manager who kind of hates Wall Street and is allowed to pursue weird avenues with his own little team and decides that Vennett is on the up and up.  Our last group is made up of Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Witlock), two young up and comers who made a decent profit betting on the failures of other investments, but who don’t have the experience, capital, or connections to make any big moves that would result in larger profits.  Luckily, they have a connection with an ex-banker named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) who helps them put their foot in the door even though he himself prefers to live off the land like a doomsday survivalist, but with a nicer house.


This is really a story-driven movie rather than a character-driven film, but we still get some decent character moments from these great actors.  Bale plays his character as a brilliant man with no social skills who is not so much cocky as he is frustrated that no one else can either see what he sees, or see that at least HE sees what no one else can see. Carrell creates a character that is likable despite basically being a young curmudgeon in the making. Gosling has never played a character as sleazy as Vennett, but he does it well.  The weird thing is, we like these characters when it’s possible we shouldn’t.  After all, these are the guys who made money off of the crippling of the world economy.  To an extent we can’t hate them.  This crash was going to happen whether or not that bought swaps.  Geller and Shipley tried to warn the media, but the Wall Street Journal chose not to report on their story, lest they ruin their friendly contacts on Wall Street.  Baum visits the credit rating agencies. Attempts are made to talk to members of the SEC (Karen Gillian has a cameo as an SEC regulator who just wants to hook up with a banker and get a cushy private sector job).  No one will listen to these guys.  So yes, they made a large profit while many others lost their houses, pensions, retirements, live savings and more.  Still, these guys are not nearly as evil as the CEOs who precipitated the culture and who were bailed out and not legally or (truly) financially punished for destroying the world economy. Capitalism!


This film was directed by Adam McKay, and considering his previous films include “Anchorman”, “Stepbrothers”, “Talladega Nights”, and “Land of the Lost”, it’s easy to say I did not expect a film this good to ever come from him.  He keeps the camera constantly moving, sometimes subtlety as if to simulation a boat rocking, and other times with a hyperkinetic fluidity that dials up the excitement and tension for a movie that is basically just people explaining complicated financial shit, and of which we already know how it ends.  There’s a great use of image montage, music, and comedic cutaways to either elucidate the plot, create humor, explain dry facts, or enhance drama.  This is one of the best edited films of the year, and I had no idea McKay had a film of this quality in him. Quite frankly, I am impressed.


This is an exceptionally made film performed by exceptional actors and directed and edited with a keen and creative precision we rarely see nowadays.  It tells an important story and conveys dense information in a wonderful and fun way.  The film is funny and angry in equal measure, and the tone is pulled off beautifully. The film even breaks the fourth wall in ways that work, and the self-aware meta-ness only adds to this wonderful concoction.  The entire world got screwed by Capitalism, a few Capitalists saw it coming, were ignored, and made money off of it, and nearly no one was punished for their evil actions. This sad, angry story ended up being one of the most delightful and funniest films of the year. I loved it. A.


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