Teems with self-awareness about the complexity of Wall Street while using that opportunity to inject dark humor into what’s otherwise a frighteningly bleak reality.
The financial crisis of 2008 had repercussions that are still felt in the world today. Yet, the economy has rebounded to the point that it’s not too difficult to forget how frighteningly close global markets came to full-on collapse. Two election cycles removed from those red-inked days, we still hear reference to government bailouts, complete with terms like “too big to fail,” but currently, the most vocal political rhetoric has largely shifted to other perceived ills. Conditions are ripe for a refresher on the sub-prime mortgage crisis, especially given the complexity of the machinations driving it. But few would’ve expected The Big Short, an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, to be helmed by Will Ferrell-cohort Adam McKay.
McKay’s involvement in The Big Short turns out to be an asset. To many a layperson, details of financial trading seem convoluted and arcane. A film with a central plot that hinges on sub-prime mortgages grouped together into fraudulently rated CDOs (tell me your eyes didn’t just glaze over there) could easily come off as far too densely layered. But McKay’s adapted script (co-written by Charles Randolph) adds a hearty dose of darkly humorously bite while wisely stopping short of outright satire. Also keeping the film in the black is an impressive cast, featuring yet another immersive oddball performance from Christian Bale, a slick-guy turn by Ryan Gosling, a wise financial guru in Brad Pitt and an emotionally repressed and outraged Steve Carell. That all adds up to a wildly entertaining film, despite the dense subject matter, and it makes for an important reminder about the perverse immunity so often granted to the financially powerful.
In 2008, the financial crisis brought about by the bursting of the housing bubble was said to have come out of nowhere. No one seemed to comprehend how handing out bad mortgages to regular folks with limited means could hurt anyone besides the poor schmucks with the crummy loans. Not even the big banks themselves seemed to realize just how precarious their position was until Lehman Bros. shuttered up. After all, we’re led to believe that the inner-workings of banking are so labyrinthine that the average person has no way of comprehending them. If the experts at the big banks didn’t even see the crisis coming, how could anyone? The Big Short portrays three parallel storylines of Wall Street “outsiders” who did predict the crash, and ultimately profited immensely from it.
In the film, many of the names are changed, with the exception being Michael Burry (Bale), the actual name of the hedge fund manager who predicted the subprime mortgage crisis years in advance. In the film, Burry is an eccentric with a glass eye and frequently bare feet who makes impossibly risky investments while blasting heavy metal in his hedge fund office. Meanwhile, Carell’s Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman) distracts himself from a deep personal wound by his disgust and outrage at the corrupt system of which he is a part, all while learning from flashy trader Jared Vennett (Gosling)—himself inspired by Burry’s research—about the lucrative possibilities behind credit default swaps. Meanwhile, retired banker Ben Rickert (Pitt) aids two fledgling investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) in pulling off “shorts” of their own for huge profit, while also lamenting the fact that their success means the ruin of many and the revelation of a corrupt system that cannot sustain itself.
The Big Short teems with self-awareness about the complexity of Wall Street while using that opportunity to inject dark humor into what’s otherwise a frighteningly bleak reality. Gosling’s Vennett spends a good chunk of time breaking the fourth wall and arrogantly explaining things to the audience. When the explanations get too complicated and potentially boring, Vennett hands it off to celebrities playing themselves to provide easier-to-chew examples. One of the most effective of these is a cut to a bustling kitchen featuring Anthony Bourdain, who compares the toxicity and fraudulent ratings of CDOs to chopping up bits of several different spoiled fish and then declaring the combined result to be a gourmet stew.
At a time when leading political candidates blame the poor or foreign-born for America’s ills, The Big Short provides a compelling reminder that it’s those behind the big banks who continue to run roughshod over the lives of the hundreds of millions of people in lower income brackets. The film reminds us that corruption and outright fraud rarely equate to jail time, as virtually no one was convicted of crimes following the financial crisis of 2008. In 21st century capitalist America, most people play against a stacked deck, and as The Big Short scathingly points out, there’s not much we can do—it’s the only game in town.