If there is one point THE BIG SHORT makes, it’s that just because something has never happened before, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it can’t. And that it takes someone with the comic sensibility of co-writer Adam McKay, a director known for THE OTHER GUYS and TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE LEGEND OF RICKY BOBBY, to expose the essential absurdity of what caused the great economic crash of 2008. As tempting as it may have been to keep the mood entirely light by focusing on the pronounced eccentricities of the band of obsessed financial free-thinkers who saw the sub-prime mortgage crash coming, in THE BIG SHORT, McKay never lets us forget the reality of just how that crash affected the honest, hard-working people who lost their homes, their savings, and their faith in the American Way. He uses his knack for humor to explain that bracing dose of reality, the specifics of those exotic financial instruments that seemed like a good idea until someone took a good look at them, by making them not just understandable, but entertaining. Anthony Bourdain explaining one of those instruments using leftovers and a soup pot should be required viewing in every MBA program in the world from now on.
For as long as there have been mortgages, at least in the modern American sense of the word, they have been the gold standard of investing. People may default on everything else, but the mortgage is the one thing that everyone and every financial institution could count on to be paid every month. Part of that was people’s instinct for self-preservation that translates to keeping a roof over one’s head. Part of it was the way lenders vetted applicants for those mortgages. In the 1970s, all that changed thanks to a broker who thought outside the box. By the 1990s, without anyone paying attention to the long-term consequences, subprime mortgages and their balloon payments had made homeownership possible for those with no way of actually making good on the debt. Brokers made tidy commissions, banks consolidated the risky loans, no one was checking the paperwork, and 2008 was set make the Wall Street Crash of 1929 look like a tea party with extra fancy petit fours.
Don’t worry. The specifics of this are part of a painless delivery system designed to both delight and to horrify.
Based on the actual events and people in Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, the film is a self-confessed mostly true story that owns up when things are fudged for dramatic effect. I has no effect on through story. Or on that cast of eccentric characters who saw what was coming and, like Cassandra, got only grief for their efforts to warn people. First among them is Michael Burry (Christian Bale getting his nerd on to magnificent effect), a hedge-fund manager and former M.D. with a glass-eye and dismal social skills. He did the unthinkable. He actually read through a prospectus and, being a geek when it came to facts, figures, and the bottom line, figured out that the financial structure of the United States, and probably the world, was going to topple. He also figured a way to make money out of it, to the dismay of his investors who could not see the facts in evidence even when Burry explained them in precise detail.
No doubt, Burry, barefoot, shaggy-haired, and given to drum solos in his office failed to inspire the same confidence that the smooth Wall Street types in expensive suits and haircuts did. Yet Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), who decked himself out in the proper uniform of high finance had the same problem. His impetus was to expose how banks cheated the little man, and his discovery, courtesy of smooth operator Jared Vennett (smooth as silk Ryan Gosling), gave him a renewed sense of outrage that didn’t stop him from making the bet against the banks, the eponymous big short, that would make him a fortune. Don’t worry. That process of betting against the bank is also explained painlessly when Vennett makes the offer to Baum to come on board. And the mess that is about to erupt, and how it could have possible gotten to that point, is explained in equally lucid and painless fashion by Baum’s trip to Florida to see exactly what is happening in the housing market, and to Las Vegas, where a financial convention includes such highlights as government regulators literally in bed with the banking industry
Baum is the moral outrage of the film, and Carrell, as the audience surrogate in this anti-Wonderland, is a perfect portrait of righteous indignation fed by Baum’s inner demons and prickly personality, but the intellectual outrage comes in the form of Ben Rickertt (Brad Pitt), an enigmatic recluse who walked away from Wall Street, but is intrigued enough by what is happening to shepherd two innocents through the process of making a fortune.
The clever use of these protagonists, and the ever-present reminder of just how this will hurt the little guy, imbues THE BIG SHORT with a strong element of suspense, as investors threaten lawsuits, the depths of both willful ignorance and just plain stupidity are revealed, and the smirking face of naked greed becomes more than just an old-boy network of sociopaths trying to outdo one another. Fast-paced, scathingly intelligent, wryly cynical, and totally engrossing from start to finish, it is a first-rate screed and a compellingly relevant film. To see it is to be appalled, terrified, and compelled to start stockpiling heirloom seeds.