Mark Reviews Movies

The Big Short


3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Ryan Gosling, Max Greenfield, Billy Magnussen, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Adepero Oduye

MPAA Rating: R (for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity)

Running Time: 2:10

Release Date: 12/11/15 (limited); 12/23/15 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 10, 2015

The Big Short follows a tragedy as it plays in slow motion. It's not a tragedy for the film's central characters, mind you, because they see it coming for years and even bet a lot of money that it will occur. For them, it's business. It's incredibly stressful, confoundingly complex business, but it still all comes down to money. That money belongs to other people, too, so there's a constant sense that these characters are divorced from the consequences of the event on which they're betting to happen.

The tragedy of the film is in the backdrop, as a group of hedge fund managers realize that there's a housing bubble sitting on the point of a pin called adjustable-rate mortgages. The bubble will burst. A lot of people will lose their homes, their jobs, and their lives, but these people will make themselves millions and their companies billions of dollars as a result.

This is a film filled with quiet moral outrage. It doesn't need to yell. It doesn't need to sermonize. It simply needs to tell us what happened, how it happened, how it could be avoided in the future, and why no one cares enough to ensure it won't happen again—or even particularly wants to keep it from happening again. By the end of the film, one gets a sense that the Wall Street banks learned their lesson, and next time, they'll make sure they're ahead of the curve in turning a profit when what happened last time happens again.

The film, co-written and directed by Adam McKay, is certain it will happen again. Maybe people with a much greater sense of moral responsibility than the characters here will see it beforehand. Maybe some kind of legislative change will help to curb it before it happens. Maybe the media will do a better job explaining and propagating the potential problem before it becomes one.

This film isn't so certain. It even goes so far as to provide us with the ideal ending to the most recent financial crisis, in which the big banks are broken up and the perpetrators go to jail and the Securities and Exchange Commission starts to do its job. That's when we're reminded that the ideal is a fantasy.

The film's depiction of the past is prologue to the next, inevitable crisis. Its purpose is to explain to us the particulars of what happened in the build-up to the housing market crash, which in turn helps to explain the causes of the worldwide economic recession, of which we're still feeling the effects.

McKay and Charles Randolph's screenplay (based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis) is in ingenious, not only in the way it explains the convoluted details of things like Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) and adjustable-rate mortgages, but also in how willing it is to come right out and admit that none of this stuff is completely comprehensible. That was a major part of the reason for what happened. Margot Robbie may helpfully explain what a CDO is, but she does so while relaxing in a bathtub. That's distracting, right? Well, now we have an idea of what it might have been like for people on Wall Street, looking at how attractive those bundled mortgage loans were and distracted from really considering the probable downsides.

The central characters of the film see it. It begins with Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward man with a glass eye and a mind for math, figuring out that the adjustable-rate mortgages within the CDOs are going to fail. He goes to the big banks on Wall Street, which are more than happy to take his firm's money betting against a market that they are certain is infallible. Eventually, Mark Baum (an excellent Steve Carell, playing the only man of the bunch who confronts a moral crisis when faced with the prospect of making millions of dollars off the pain and suffering of millions of people), a walking B.S. detector who is still grieving the recent suicide of his brother, and a pair of independent brokers named Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) get involved in their own bets against the housing market.

The bubble keeps looking ready to burst, but no one in the industry seems to realize it. That's bad news for the protagonists and, as it turns out, even worse news for the world economy (An economics professor and a pop star pointedly explain how that happened using the metaphor of side bets on side bets on side bets on a single hand of blackjack).

On the sidelines are Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), our untrustworthy narrator who works for one of the big banks and wants to get in on the action his colleagues don't see, and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former stock trader who knows all too well how rigged the system is and is preparing for a future in which the currency will be seeds. McKay's primary goal may be to explicate the technical details here, but he makes sure we have a firm grasp on these characters, too, such as the way he and editor Hank Corwin give us glimpses into the corners of these men's lives as they wheel and deal.

The film is most helpful in explaining that a lot of what happened was the result of plain old stupidity on the part of big banks, credit rating firms, mortgage brokers, consumers, and federal regulatory bodies. Everyone was making money, and nobody wanted to see the truth behind what they had created. Mark and his colleagues take a trip to Miami, where they discover loan men buying boats and strippers taking out mortgages on multiple houses against the backdrop of suburban ghost towns. Mark's realization that there is, indeed, a housing bubble is as much a punch line to depressing joke as it is a plot point. When the ignorance on the part of the big banks ceases, their actions become far more sinister as they try to stop the bleeding.

The Big Short is a film of procedural and, more importantly, moral clarity. The film is as much a warning as it is a tough-minded examination of recent history. That it seems well-placed to be a big "We told you so" is most concerning of all.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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