Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Movie Review: The Big Short

The Big Short
Directed by: Adam McKay.
Written by: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay based on the book by Michael Lewis.
Starring: Steve Carell (Mark Baum), Ryan Gosling (Jared Vennett), Christian Bale (Michael Burry),  Brad Pitt (Ben Rickert), Rafe Spall (Danny Moses), Hamish Linklater (Porter Collins), Jeremy Strong (Vinnie Daniel), John Magaro (Charlie Geller), Finn Wittrock (Jamie Shipley), Tracy Letts (Lawrence Fields), Marisa Tomei (Cynthia Baum), Adepero Oduye (Kathy Tao), Melissa Leo (Georgia Hale).

The financial crisis of 2008, that crashed the American economy, and had reverberations around the world, is one that I think many people do not really understand. As soon as things like “derivatives” and “subprime loans” and other, much more complicated terms start coming up, most people’s eyes glaze over, and they stop paying attention. Now if you’re like me, who as an accountant, found the whole thing fascinating, and read a few books about the subject (including the one this movie is based on), watched numerous documentaries (Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job is clearly the best), and read countless articles, and news stories (not to mention the excellent episodes that This American Life devoted to the subject), it’s pretty clear easy to see what happened. Yet, even though I understand what happened, a film like The Big Short still amazes me – because it makes what happened so very clear, and yet wraps it up into one of the most entertaining movies of the year – a film full of movie stars, who seem to be having fun, even while the movie seethes with anger. When people have asked me to explain what happened, I can see their eyes glaze over about a sentence in – now, I’ll just tell them to watch The Big Short.

Basically, the American economy was sunk by bad mortgages – in which lenders would give any moron off the street a mortgage to buy a house, because basically, it didn’t matter if they ever paid it back to the people lending the money – because it wasn’t really their money, and the more loans they gave out, the more money they made. Wall Street then took these loans, bundled them together, and sold them as if it were a safe bond – the housing market had never collapsed before, why would it now? Of course, the reason it collapsed was because of all those bad loans – but no one was really paying attention, or more accurately, no one wanted to pay attention, because they were all too busy making too much money to give a shit. What The Big Short is about is those few people who realized the housing market was going to collapse years before anyone else – and bet against the market – essentially taking insurance out against the economy (this is a gross simplification, as gross simplifications go, not nearly as entertaining as the ones featuring celebrities, playing themselves, in the Big Short).

I know I’ve probably lost a few readers with that paragraph – and fair enough – reading about this can be dull. But the movie is anything but. Directed by Adam McKay, who is best known for his films with Will Ferrell, and wouldn’t have been anyone’s idea of the director for this material, but he turns out to be perfect for it. He directs the film with the same energy of his other films – with a touch of Scorsese as well (this operates kind of like The Wolf of Wall Street, except you’re supposed to like these characters). He weaves together several different storylines – those of Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a strange man running an obscure hedge fund who realizes things are bad before anyone else, and starts betting against it. Soon others, like Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his teams, who are associated with a Wall Street bank, but doesn’t really work for them, get involved – with the help of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) –the one character that seems like a clichéd Wall Street guy. And then a couple of small timers (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who team up with a paranoid, former Wall Street type (Brad Pitt) to do the same thing.

What’s amazing about The Big Short is how much information the film packs into the movie, without it ever feeling like an economics lesson, or a boring sermon. The film movies so quickly, with such great performances, that the film is never less than entertaining, is often quite funny – and yet remains angry from start to finish. This shouldn’t have happened – and yet it did. McKay and company have made one of the great movies about Wall Street in history – more entertaining, and less clichéd that Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, easier to take than The Wolf of Wall Street (which is a better movie, but less informative). You shouldn’t be able to make a crowd pleaser about this subject – but that is precisely what McKay has done.

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