“The Big Short” Movie Review


     Nearly everyone who watches director Adam McKay’s new film, “The Big Short”, will feel a sense of disgust towards nearly every character in the film, as it is filled with snarky wise asses whose sole purpose in life is to squash others in order to fulfill their quest to make as much money as possible.  And none of these characters has the slightest bit of redeeming qualities that can in some way allow you to relate to their motivations or the decisions they make.  Fortunately, director Adam McKay infuses the proceedings with the kind of funny and well timed comedic dialogue he used so successfully in his previous offerings such as “Anchorman”, “The Other Guys”, and “Step Brothers.”  Considering McKay’s filmography, I half expected Will Ferrell to pop up as a greedy caricature of Gordon Gekko at some point, but instead he populates the film with an all-star ensemble featuring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt.  It also helps Charles Randolph’s screenplay, based on Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, is expertly written, giving the actors the words which create and sustain a very powerful take on the collapse of the housing market in 2007.

     “The Big Short” essentially follows four real life men who oversaw and managed hedge funds in separate firms.  In what is a likely comparison to the fact the events depicted in the story are no different than the organized crime seen in a film like “Goodfellas”, McKay presents the material with narration by one of the central characters who finds himself neck deep in the mayhem that ensues.  In the case of “Goodfellas”, that was Ray Liotta, and in similar fashion, Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett functions in much the same way.  McKay knows the material here can easily go right over some people’s heads, as an early line by Vennett tells us Wall Street creates a lot of these financial terms that describe simple concepts by making the computations sound difficult and confusing.  As if they are the only ones who can possibly understand what they are doing because of their formidable business education.  McKay employs several creative and entertaining ways to explain what’s going on in layman’s terms with the use of  notable celebrities exemplifying these financial scenarios with comparisons to everything from a game of blackjack to the use of three day old fish at a high end restaurant.  The strategy works as most will likely leave the film having a full understanding of what these crooks did to cause this mess.

     While Vennett provides the color commentary, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) provides the initial discovery of the impending collapse in the housing bubble a year in advance.  Burry, who runs a successful hedge fund firm, is socially inept, but is a genius number cruncher and has a knack for market speculation which has resulted in his firm managing hundreds of millions of dollars in investments.  We are introduced to what was a safe investment when the characters explain mortgage backed securities and the math behind them.  Basically, this is where banks package together thousands of mortgage loans and sell them as an investment.  As long as each person pays their mortgage, the investors will continue to make money from the interest that compounds over a period of time.  It was thought of as a sound investment, until the big banks got greedy and changed the rules.

     As Burry explains, the banks created a product called a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) and somehow blackmailed the credit ratings agencies into giving these products a high score, meaning investors would not shy away from sinking their money into them even though they were comprised of thousands of low grade or sub prime mortgage loans that were destined to fail.  In truth, these products contained a large percentage of loans whose borrowers had low credit scores, no job, and no way to pay.  Vennett uniquely demonstrates this in front of Mark Baum (Steve Carell), another prominent hedge fund manager, by using the game Jenga with each piece labeled with AAA to B credit ratings.  Pull out a couple pieces from the bottom and the whole thing collapses.  It’s these visual examples McKay uses that really make the world of finance easier to understand, but they also heighten the level of hatred you will feel towards these people who knowingly ruined the financial futures of so many millions of Americans.

     Now comes the part where I can’t really understand whether or not the main characters are being portrayed as people who effectively stuck it to the banks or did so knowing they would substantially line their own pockets as well.  Burry is credited with going to all of the big banks and having them create a new product called a Credit Default Swap, which is basically an insurance policy on a CDO that has the investor paying massive premiums on the bet that the CDO will fail.  Now the banks are more than happy to take this money because in their minds, the mortgage business is rock solid.  Their thinking is they will receive millions of dollars in premiums and will never have to pay because they believe the CDO will never fail.  Burry, of course, knows different and soon his investment model begins to fall into the hands of others, including Vennett, Baum, and a fledgling firm backed by a retired broker named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).  All four of them sink millions of their investors money into various Credit Default Swaps and then not so patiently wait for the market and economy to collapse.  When it does so, they all stand to make billions.  I’m not sure if that qualifies as moral, especially since when the banks did collapse the government had to bail them out, due in part to the billions paid on these CDS insurance policies.

     As I said previously, “The Big Short” never plays like a serious film, though its subject matter couldn’t be any more serious.  The characters are colorful and well drawn, ensuring even the most complicated financial jargon comes across smooth and entertaining.  The story itself is not unlike the one told in 2011’s J.C. Chandor directed “Margin Call” and the Academy Award winning documentary, 2010’s “Inside Job”, directed by Charles Ferguson.  Both of those films are worth a look if you want to be further informed on the topic, but “The Big Short” proves just as capable at depicting the financial atrocities committed by the big banks and how they committed fraud against the American people.  The film does this so well, in fact, that I would expect a Best Picture nomination in its future, as well as possible acting and screenplay recognition.  The ensemble here is every bit as good as the actors in “Spotlight” with each functioning as a whole, rather than standing out individually.  There’s a lot to like here, but one can’t escape that sick feeling which results from watching the truth being exposed at the expense of the rest of us.  GRADE: A