Wall St. crash predicted, ignored, in wry exposé ‘Big Short’
If you set out to make a hard-hitting documentary about the financial crash of 2008, two things would happen. The activities of bankers, hedge fund managers and other money-grubbing speculators would be way too convoluted for the average viewer to follow. And any attempts to explain what was going on in the dry, dusty language of bank speak would bore the viewer senseless.
Which is just the way the banking industry likes it, according to The Big Short, a breezy, profane, scathingly funny, lightly fictionalized feature about the crash and how it happened. Industry professionals did not intentionally crash the global economy, the film argues, but they ignored the warning signs because they were all too busy making piles of money in ways so nefarious and underhanded that they could depend on nobody being concerned or interested enough to follow their trail—until a handful of industry outsiders figured out what was going on and found a way to beat the bankers at their own crooked game.
Scripted by Charles Randolph and director Adam McKay, the film is adapted from the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis (The Blind Side; Moneyball). The story unfolds like an action movie in which the underdog misfits challenge the monster. Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a barefoot Silicon Valley fund manager who takes the time to crunch some numbers and realizes the gigantic Ponzi scheme that is the mortgage industry on the verge of collapse.
Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is a crusading operative with Morgan Stanley on Wall Street. A wrong number call to his office leads to Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a slick operator with Deutsche Bank who sees that Wall Street is heading for a fall; he’s looking to cash in, while Baum and his team investigate the unscrupulous and predatory mortgage biz. Meanwhile, two wannabe players (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) lure financial guru Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) out of retirement in the Colorado mountains to support their “kinda brilliant” plan to profit off mortgage skullduggery.
The filmmakers understand how arcane the business of credit-swaps and C.O.D.s can be to the layperson. To help us follow along, there are many asides directly to the audience by Gosling’s Vennett, who narrates along with celebrity appearances to illustrate the finer points. Margot Robbie sips champagne in a bubble bath to explain subprime mortgages. Chef Anthony Bourdain likens bad loans to three-day-old fish cut up and bundled into a stew to be resold. Selena Gomez explains how Wall Street bets on the housing marketplace sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas, where side-bettors suppose the winning streak will never end.
The story’s protagonists forecast the coming shortfall, but their warnings are dismissed by their bosses, who insist along with Alan Greenspan and Henry Paulson that the economy is strong. So the outsiders “bet against the house” for a big payday when the market tanks. The point is not that these guys were smart enough to make a lot of money (which they did; “I’m not the hero of this movie,” says Vennett), but that the debacle could have been avoided if the market had been corrected, if the loan industry was efficiently regulated, and if lenders weren’t so greedy.
You still may not come away knowing exactly what happened when the banking bubble burst. But you’ll sympathize with Baum’s conclusion that the entire system is completely fraudulent, from Wall Street scammers and bond agencies that knowingly inflate the ratings on bad loans, to the law, the government and the media, who refuse to interfere.
And when things blow up, it’s not the banks that suffer—their firms are bailed out; their CEOs still get their extravagant bonuses. It’s working families, stiffed with bad loans they could never possibly pay off in real life, who lose their homes and their savings. (When Baum’s team asks a couple of suburban bankers if anybody ever fails to qualify for a loan, the bankers just laugh.)
In the film’s epilogue, the bankers go to jail, and the industry is regulated—followed by a sardonic “Just kidding!” Of all of the film’s dark comedy moments, this is the hardest one to laugh at.
THE BIG SHORT
*** (out of four)
With Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.
Written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay. Directed By Adam McKay. A Paramount release. Rated R. 130 minutes.