Improbable director Adam McKay (of Will Ferrell comedies) doesn’t need a bail-out, he has undisputedly done a great job. The Big Short goes back between 2006 through 2008 to depict the housing crisis, and it tosses complicated terms at you. Then it does something simple but incredible: It detours to cameo appearances to have those terms explained to you. McKay reaffirms what I have always expected, as well. That the majority of people in banking and the housing market didn’t even know how the system worked. The housing market was built on a house of cards made up of dubious bonds contrived of sub-prime mortgages. What’s a sub-prime? The movie hilariously pauses to explain it to you.
I didn’t expect the film to do such a great job in educating me on why the 2008 economy collapsed and why firms like Bear Stearns went bankrupt. I got a heads-up on the mechanisms of it all, although for years those mechanisms were fraudulent. The film even shows you briefly but succinctly how in the early 1980’s unethical practices got streamlined.
As the firmly begins its story in 2006, a bunch of traders and hedge fund managers got ahold of analysis that the mortgage industry would implode. There is no way to bet against the market, until Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a guy with tons of mathematical brains and no social skills, takes a bank insurance policy idea to the top banks. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs are among the firms that believe he is some kind of renegade with miscalculated information. Those power firms think, perhaps, they can swallow up $100 million and more from the firm Burry works for.
Burry takes heat from his bosses for the next two years, because now they are paying premiums to those power firms. He locks himself in his office and fires up heavy metal music and flails his drumsticks to beat frustration. When called on, Burry backs up his theories with precise industry language. His investors become very upset but he writes company emails to assure them his theory will prove correct (he doesn’t write back to the ones that say they are going to sue). When the numbers start revealing themselves – the market is unstable for the first time in U.S. history – the mortgage banks lie to cover their tracks. We wait and pant for a great payoff that just has to come. The patience required is aggravating.
Bale, dependable for always turning in an interesting performance, simply does more than that. He’s fascinating. So are the other actors which make up the year’s best ensemble. Among them are Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro and Brad Pitt as a former trader but guru who foresees fortune as well as the consequences to come.
These guys made numbers like $84 million, $200 million, $47 million. I was equally surprised that I felt sorry for more than just one of these guys (not all). You probably think that’s pushover sentiment. It’s not. You will have to see for yourself.
I sometimes carped to myself how McKay cut around too many times within a scene, and overly relied on jittery camerawork to connote urgency. But his camera is in the right place more often than not, and he is terrific in cutting away to dictionary title cards and layman’s lectures. McKay has one character to use a Jenga puzzle to explain a metaphor, or he simply introduces us to overinflated Miami property in another scene.
In the ranks of big money movies, “The Big Short” is not quite as cinematically dazzling as “The Wolf of Wall Street” from a couple years back. But I think I learned more here. It also entertained the heck out of me and – gasp! – emotionally engaged me. And you’re in the company of a brilliant set of characters.
130 Minutes. Rated R.
HISTORICAL DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / WEEKEND FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Film Cousins: “Capitalism: A Love Story” (2009); “Inside Job” (2010); “Margin Call” (2011); “The Queen of Versailles” (2012).