The Big Short
(USA) Comedy. Directed by Adam McKay. Starring Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt. Category IIB. 130 minutes. Opened Jan 21.
Still wondering what really went down in the financial crisis eight years ago? Were you more invested in Britney Spears shaving her hair off than in understanding what the subprime mortgage meltdown really meant? In one of this year’s biggest movies (its five Oscar nominations are a big hint) Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has done the best job yet in breaking down the money mumbo jumbo for the masses, walking us through why the bubble burst and how it still affects us today, eight years on.
With goofy titles like “Anchorman” on his roster, McKay lends a comic and infectious energy to the story. Of course it has to be this way, otherwise the audience would be snoozing by the title credits. It’s a true tale based on author Michael Lewis’ (“The Blind Side,” “Moneyball”) account of how four Wall Street outsiders predicted the financial crisis before anyone else—and cashed in on it. It’s equally an exposé of the ludicrous ease with which banks were doling out mortgages and loans that people couldn’t realistically pay off, as well as a deep moral examination and cautionary tale of the sheer greed that led the banks, ratings agencies and mortgage broker bros to make terrible decisions for incomprehensible amounts of cash.
When eccentric real-life hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale—method acted to a T, as usual), a oneeyed, Megadeth-blasting numbers whiz, notices how unstable and risky the American housing market is, he predicts the collapse mid-2007 and plans to profit from it by betting that the loans will default: He’s taking a short position. A very big one. The banks see him as a total nutcase, so obviously they take his money. Suave trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), catches wind of this and pitches the same plan to hedge fund manager and blustering moral knight Mark Baum (Steve Carell as a more intense, upright version of “The Office”’s Michael Scott). Hoping to get rich fast, a pair of amateur investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) accidentally come across Vennett’s proposal, and enlist the help of pessimistic retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get in on the profit.
The three groups never intersect, but Vennett whirls us through the story as narrator, demystifying the complex financial jargon. The best way he does this? Bringing in celebrities like Margot Robbie (in a sexy, sudsy bathtub, of course), Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez to explain complex terms like a “collateralized debt obligation” or “synthetic CDOs.” It’s the best kind of crash course.
Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”) works in a close-up-ridden, sometimes shaky realism to the film which adds to the grainy mid-noughties charm, but it also brings out the harsh comedy of particularly bleak sets, from abandoned luxury suburbs to deserted Goldman Sachs offices.
Although “The Big Short” is cleverly disguised as an easy breezy lesson in finance, it’s 130 minutes of insight as well. Hopefully the people who were just paying attention to celebrity gossip eight years ago will finally listen to what these celebs have to say. Evelyn Lok