Bursting the bubble
THE BIG SHORT, drama, rated R, Violet Crown, 4 chiles
This year’s best movies seem to be investigative pieces ripped from headlines of fairly recent vintage. My choice for Best Movie of the Year has been Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s gripping paean to investigative journalism in The Boston Globe’s unmasking of pedophilia in the Catholic Church at the turn of the millennium.
Joining it at the top of the list is a remarkable movie from Adam McKay, a director mostly associated with Will Ferrell comedies, the Saturday Night Live writing staff, and the comedy video website Funny or Die. The Big Short takes him into new territory: a look at the rot underlying the 2008 near-collapse of the world financial system, triggered by the implosion of the subprime mortgage market.
McKay’s movie is by turns funny, frightening, suspenseful, informative, and tragic. It looks at the impending debacle from the perspectives of four analysts, or teams, who had the vision to recognize what nobody else saw coming: the rottenness of the system, the worthlessness of the packaged mortgages on which the economy was gliding, and the inevitable devastating crash when the bubble burst. They bet against the economy. They bet big. And they won. Every one of the actors assembled here is terrific. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an eccentric money manager who took the trouble to read the contents of the worthless mortgage bundles and saw the writing on the Wall Street wall. He’s the only player identified by his real name in the movie (Bale even wears Burry’s real clothes).
Brad Pitt (who also produced) is Ben Rickert, a former Chase analyst now out of the game who mentors two young garage-based traders, Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller ( John Magaro). Ryan Gosling is Jared Vennett, a banker who serves as the film’s occasional narrator and points out the reason why these guys were able to see what nobody else could: “They looked.”
The heart and soul of this tale is Mark Baum, a hedge-fund manager with a conscience and a low boiling point for moral outrage. He’s played by Steve Carell, who trades in his Foxcatcher prosthetic nose for a bad haircut here, continuing to prove his chops as a serious actor.
That McKay (who adapted the story with Charles Randolph from the bestselling book by Michael Lewis) was able to build a movie about the financial meltdown that cost so many people their homes and savings, and make it entertaining and suspenseful and even funny, is a remarkable achievement. The movie is also instructive. Celebrities pop in to conduct mini-seminars: singer Selena Gomez and economist Richard H. Thaler explain synthetic CDOs while playing blackjack at a Las Vegas table; chef Anthony Bourdain likens the putrid mortgage bonds to three-day-old halibut in a fish stew.
In the end, the good guys are right and the Wall Street crooks and dupes are wrong, but there’s not much to celebrate. Burry and the rest make their millions, but the consequences for average people are terrible. “An atomic bomb of fraud and stupidity” is what Baum calls it. A few large firms get their comeuppance, but only one poor fall guy goes to jail; the government bails out institutions that are too big to fail; and a lot of the people who built the system that Baum blasts as “a level of criminality unprecedented even on Wall Street” wind up richer than ever.
With all the laughs, and there are plenty of them, the movie leaves us with this thought: Not much has changed, and it could happen again. — Jonathan Richards
Hedging his bets: Steve Carell