Nutshell: The Big Short deals with the heartbreaking concept of a world financial collapse, and makes it fascinating and at times even funny. While this film pulls no punches, it also educates as it entertains with scenes that break the fourth wall and cameos that keep dull minutiae understandable. This isn’t only a must-see for awards season, but for anyone who wants to know more about how our world is run, and the banks that hold all the cards. Grade: A
“It looks like someone hit a piñata and out fell a bunch of white guys who aren’t very good at golf.”
If, back in the double-aughts, you wondered how folks could be approved for houses two, three, five times more expensive than their salaries could actually swing, The Big Short is gonna be your catnip. If you’re wondering just what exactly the hell happened in 2008, how exactly our financial system could turn into such a big mess, and why the bubble burst, this movie will lay it all out for you. And if you’re just someone who enjoys the idea of a smart, intellectual film that doesn’t talk down to you but instead grabs you by the shoulder and says “okay, but you gotta admit, this is funny as hell”? Run, don’t walk to the theater.
First things first; these guys were not all in it together. A few were, but these were guys who either saw it coming, heard that it was coming, or simply lucked into the opportunity by chance. There’s Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a one-eyed man with zero social skills but a mind for finance. Jared Vennett (played by Ryan Gosling, based on real-life Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann), a man really, REALLY good at his job, and whose certainty of the coming bust is so cocksure it’s almost sleazy. Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hedge fund manager whose hatred of The Man borders on conspiracy theory. Relative small-timers Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who long to “sit at the big boy table”, and ask Shipley’s former neighbor (Brad Pitt, based on Ben Hockett) for help getting them into the game. If that sounds like a whole lot of folks doing a whole lot of things? It is. But don’t worry; things are easy to follow, and with subtitled dates and locations thrown into the mix to keep viewers on-track, things flow smoothly.
Director Adam McKay (Anchorman, Stepbrothers, SNL) has an impressive track record with comedies, but this is his first real dip into the biopic. He doesn’t leave comedy far behind though, and that makes what could have been a slog of a film incredibly entertaining. McKay has characters blast through the fourth wall to let the audience know exactly how screwed up things are, and Jared Vennett narrates as if telling the audience a cocktail party whale-tale.
But what about all that hard economics-type stuff? Oh, you may not walk out of the theater with a PhD, but screenwriters McKay and Charles Randolph make sure the tough stuff to follow goes down smooth. How? By pulling you out of the story from time to time and learnin’ you some. Don’t worry you’ll get some cool teachers thrown into the mix. How cool? Well…
* the skinny on subprime loans comes from Margot Robbie, while she’s in a bubble bath drinking champagne
* there’s a comparison of CDOs (collateralized debt obligation) and day-old fish from Anthony Bourdain
* the concept of “synthetic CDLs” gets broken down by Selena Gomez and economist Dr. Richard Thaler while they play blackjack in Vegas
Yeah, it’s some funny stuff sometimes. But McKay doesn’t shy away from the dirty dealings, and the fallout once things started to go south. In a scene where Baum and his group head to Florida to check out a housing development that’s starting to disintegrate due to defaulted mortgages, there’s a man renting one of the houses that is about to be foreclosed on. The man has no idea what’s coming, and is worried; “but I pay my rent!” And everyone – including the audience – knows that his actions make no difference. Cut to a later scene, and he and his family are living in their car because of his landlord’s mismanagement. It’s a gut-punch that serves to remind us of exactly what Our Gang are betting on; the collapse of this system means homelessness, job loss and financial ruin for many. Meanwhile the banks suffer a brief period of worry, and bounce right back. (The movie Too Big to Fail is a great double-feature bookend to Short; it’s a look at this crisis as the market started to crumble, and the government’s attempt to contain the damage to the economy.)
The sad part of The Big Short is that what happened wasn’t that complicated. Hell, even I know that you shouldn’t take on more debt than you’re able to afford, including houses with “super-low introductory rate” loans. (Especially not those.) What makes this film so accessible is that we all know that if something is too good to be true, it usually is. But we’ve all been sold a load of goods that made it seem as though the party would last forever…but the bill came due and everyone’s credit card was declined. That Short takes these truths and makes them genuinely funny and meaningful? Well, that’s a billion dollar idea right there.