The first reason to see The Big Short? You still don’t understand the recession. I’ve watched all the movies and docs from Margin Call to Inside Job, but they don’t break down the housing bubble quite like Anthony Bourdain making stew out of customer leftovers. Or Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble bath, calmly explaining finance.
Mix two parts Gordon Gekko with shots of Cary Grant and Peter Sellers, and you’ll be in the market of Adam McKay’s The Big Short. McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph have crafted a smartly observational comedy. For a director famed for Anchorman and Talladega Nights, McKay isn’t outlandish here for the hell of it. Wall Street finance is wacky enough in its deliberate confusion and lack of regulation. The further he goes, it becomes more clear the financial sector has no idea what the consequences are. Or that there will be any.
In essence, a few men independently profit from the market collapse by “shorting” on (or wagering on failure of) CDOs—bad loans that somehow look super when packaged together. (It’s like buying a Happy Meal: a cheerful name for a grab-bag of terrible food.) So these men realize the CDOs blow, invest in their failure… then wait for the reckoning. If you still don’t get it, well, few did back in 2007! In the context of this movie, even dumbed down, the whole idea of forging and selling CDOs like this sounds so fantastic, it could be studied at Hogwarts. This is a fable in which things you never knew (at least, I didn’t) have the bizarre power to bring about armageddon.
The movie zips along for the first hour and a half. There are bumps; McKay throws a lot at the wall to see what sticks, like an unneeded family tragedy for Steve Carell’s character, so that he’s obsessed with work and unavailable to his wife. Whatever. When the bubble finally pops, the movie makes a sharp, effective tonal shift. We see our protagonists in the light of day, realizing what they’ve done. Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, a snake-oil investor, was just there to get rich; Gosling has rarely been as fun and villainous. Carell’s cantankerous Mark Baum clearly hates himself for beating the system; there’s a poignancy to the moment he sells, knowing he’ll get richer for people losing their jobs/homes/lives. And math extraordinaire Michael Burry* (Christian Bale, wonderfully detailed in his eccentricities) leaves his hedge fund after returning 489% to his investors.
Most movies about the recession made us angry. The Big Short wants to make us laugh. Before we get angry again.**
*The real manager of Scion Capital from 2000 to 2008, who made the exact shorts the movie depicts. The other leads are based on other analysts/traders, with their names changed.
**Where do we start? The banks were bailed out. Nobody was prosecuted. CDOs still exist in a different form. And the country does not unilaterally support big bank reform.